Unfortunately, yesterday's day of waiting with bated breath for the finale of the Packers/Vikings ended in a puff of smoke as rookie Blair Walsh sent a 29-yard playoff-berth-clinching kick through the uprights. For some, it was a disappointing end to as disappointing a season as 10-6 can possibly be; for others, it was a moment that sealed the fate of head coach Lovie Smith as failing to make the playoffs.
I'll admit, I had a really hard time rooting for the Packers yesterday, but if it meant the Bears would be in the playoffs if they won, so be it. The problem though is... How can a coach be fired for things out of his control? If you told me pre-season that Lovie's job depended on if the Vikings beat the Packers in week 17 or not, I'd try to have you committed.
That being said, there's no denying that, for a head coach, the playoffs and the Super Bowl are the ultimate goal - and failing to reach that goal can be a coach's death knell. In Lovie's case, that's once playoff appearance since 2007 - once in the last six seasons. One playoff victory in those six years. Over his career, three playoff berths in nine seasons. Three playoff victories, two first round byes.
The reasons to fire Lovie Smith are numerous, and in some cases just. Because the Packers beat the Vikings in a game isn't one of them.
So let's move on from that to the traditional Notes:
Anthony Walters had some occasional nice flashes playing the run (tackling somewhat being an issue), but in the defensive backfield, he made plenty of young mistakes and the Lions went after him quite a bit. On Will Heller's touchdown, the linebackers were held by Joique Bell coming out of the backfield, and Heller went straight at the safeties. I believe the safety there was Walters; Heller got to the goal line, turned and caught the pass instantly.
- On Kris Durham's touchdown on the left sideline, Tim Jennings (who was generally pretty good but slipped here I think) let Durham release inside completely unchecked and darted straight towards the front corner on that side. Jennings was in absolutely no position to make any kind of play. In Cover 2, Walters is supposed to be over on that side, but he was late coming over to the play - and even if he's there, I'm not sure how he gets into position to stop that completion. I think Jennings had to either put a jam on or disrupt the route timing, not just let him go.
- If the Bears and tackling were a couple, their Facebook status would be "It's complicated."
- Man, what the hell happened to Brandon Marshall in this one? Fourteen targets, five receptions, 42 yards. We saw Marshall stop on a route, Marshall be overthrown, Marshall run other bad routes, and Marshall have balls hit him in the hands that he couldn't haul in. Just write it off as a bad game, I suppose.
- One thing the Bears did get in this one is help from receivers not named Marshall. The Bears ran back to back screens, first to Forte for a decent gain where he cut outside allowing Spencer to block a second guy within his block, then the bubble to Bennett, who navigated a jungle of silver and blue with one blocker. The Lions were taking horrible run-after-catch tackling angles, and Bennett isn't a particularly slow receiver (Hester in his prime, no, but enough). In fact, Bennett put together a hundred-yard game on his 5 receptions in 5 targets day.
- Alshon Jeffery had himself a game from the jump too - got off on the right foot with a double move and streaking down the field; right away, we saw his progress with contact - instead of creating additional contact with his defender, he rolled off and continued into his route with separation. Though I want to get into his first down catch on third and 5 with Cutler in the shotgun. Jeffery took his route four yards - shy of the marker - and caught the ball with the defender all over him. Jeffery probably should have taken his route just up and past the first-down marker to ensure the first down, but he simply came back to the ball, secured it and powered his way to the first down marker complete with extension. Routes just short of the first down marker are nothing new with the Bears this season, but this might be one of the few times a receiver turned upfield and just got the first.
- One interesting play I wanted to bring up - the Bears sent Jeffery on the outside left, Marshall to the slot and Bennett out on the right all alone. The pass goes to Bennett deep on that right side. The Lions have to adjust for Marshall, who's done some work out of the slot (and does work anywhere he's lined up) as well as Jeffery, and Bennett creates a little space to make a pretty good catch.
- And just when you thought things were going great, Kellen Davis had to remind you it's 2012 - on his missed touchdown catch, he probably wasn't going to catch that one where he was, but I do think he could have adjusted a little better to the ball before going up for it.
- The Bears certainly seemed to get the screen game moving quite a bit more frequently - couple receiver screens, a couple screens to Forte out of the backfield, a nifty play-action screen to Evan Rodriguez that got a couple yards, even mixing in an end-around to Devin Hester - a bit of lateral movement to go with the occasional deep targets that had vacated themselves from the offense.
- Let's just summarize the offensive day throwing the ball as FOX frequently did: Throws to Marshall, Cutler was 5-14 for 42 yards. Throws to anybody except Marshall, 13-17 for 213 yards and a touchdown.
- Forte's not a good up-the-middle rusher especially with little-to-no lane, but on the Bears' sixth drive, they opened up with a rush up the middle for 11 yards, then Forte bounced the next run outside for 13. The next play, the line was completely overwhelmed, and Forte took a loss of one. It's not just Forte - other backs might be able to succeed with those "lanes" but the offensive line just doesn't get enough consistent push. When the line succeeds, the Bears' interior rushing succeeds.
- Forte's touchdown, I think it was a case of the Lions expecting more of an outside run - Forte's interior lane, once he squeezed through, was completely uncovered.
- So, I don't think Dominic Raiola will be calling any Bears' defensive tackles "clowns" any time soon. Henry Melton made some nice penetration, including almost wrapping up Stafford for a sack (a play he has to complete); Stephen Paea and Amobi Okoye had a couple nice bottling plays in the run game and Israel Idonije's strip-sack came on a rush from the interior. By and large, Detroit's pass protection held up well, but the defensive line made some pretty nice plays.
- Nick Roach isn't Brian Urlacher in his prime, but the more I watch him, the more comfortable I start to become with the thought of him continuing to play middle next year.
- Stafford absolutely embellished his Briggs hit, but Briggs deserved the personal foul there. The Lions really need to send Briggs a Christmas card for keeping that drive alive for them.
- So, any time the Bears' offense wants to stand on their own two feet and not require benefits from third down dumb penalties is fine by me.
- I had no idea there was a penalty for "not returning in-bounds in a timely manner" as unsportsmanlike.
- That old grey Mare, he ain't what he used to be... (Yeah, I know, he missed one of five, but I wanted to use that joke.)
- Hester's struggled on punt returns most of the year, but Kasim Osgood just owned the daylights out of him all day.
- Apparently I need to write about Cutler more often, cause this was one of his better games on the year - funny how quarterbacks look better when they get help from a rough secondary and their receivers make plays for them. But he played more decisive Sunday, I thought - didn't waste as much time roaming around, tried to get free and find a passing lane or got free and charged for a first down. His 19-yard run on third down with the entire left side of the field open was a great decision.
- I do need to ask... The hell was that whole "drop the ball" thing? Vanden Bosch fumbled the recovery and Forte recovered at the 50, but that took the Bears out of field goal range.
- By the way, if you didn't know, any time the Bears bring in Carimi as an extra tackle, here's a hint - they're running out of their jumbo package. Maybe they buried a play-action back-door screen to the back-side tight end in the playbook somewhere for use in the playoffs. Maybe for Rodriguez, who might have the best speed of the TE/FB group. I can certainly hope so. If they pulled it off, I bet it'd be pretty.
- I'm sorry, if you have four takeaways and don't give the ball away yourselves, you can't be ahead by just one score. The Lions may not be a great team, but their offense can still move and move well; the Lions held the Bears to 16 points off their turnovers, and in those situations, points are nice, but you need to complete the throat-stomp. 1-4 in the red zone doesn't get it done. 4-15 on third down doesn't get it done. And an 8:18 advantage in time of possession shouldn't mean you win the game by two points.
- Stafford was out of sync the whole game; maybe they wanted to get Johnson his record and be done with it, but the Bears' secondary forced a lot of altered throws - higher to get over defenders and overthrowing Johnson, behind Johnson to keep it away from a defender - and in the end, Johnson only had 5 receptions for 72 yards on the same amount of targets - 14.
- By the way, Stafford completed passes to ten different targets. Four receivers, three tight ends, two running backs and a fullback. And a partridge in a pear tree.
- Extra-chippy prep week, "let-'em-play"-type game. Sure. Seven combined penalties.
- Joe Anderson keeps making special teams plays, this time forcing a fumble by Joique Bell on a kick return. The Bears could only turn it into a field goal.
- I had my doubts about the Bears being able to run out the end-game offensive plan by running the ball. Forte had as good a final run as I'd seen in recent weeks, especially from him... well, prior to watching Adrian Peterson say "lawlno" in the waning seconds of the Packers/Vikings game.
So that's that, then - we return to the offseason end-times, watching teams that aren't in the navy and orange fight it out for the Super Bowl trophy, looking at free agency, breaking down the season that was, and looking forward to the 2013-2014 season to come, and beyond. Dane let me start doing these day-after pieces prior to last season; I hope that over the course of the seasons I haven't let you down in breaking down the on-field action, and I look forward to doing them again next year.
Bear Down, my friends.