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Playoff games in the regular season: a vision of the future

...where we examine the three kinds of Regular Season Playoff Games: the Do-or-Die games, the Hinge games, and the Vision games. This week against Denver, it's playoff time.

Jeremy Langford, soaring into history.
Jeremy Langford, soaring into history.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Real sports fans never stop searching. Studying. Hunting for clues. Anything that tips us off. Can this team win the chip? Will our first-rounder pan out? What about our quarterback -- has a team ever won with a QB who ________?

We're detectives in that way. And we have different preferred fields of search. Some people study game tape. Some love numbers, either stats or analytics. Maybe you've internalized the league's ridges -- know every crease. Maybe you dig trends, or as our Josh Sunderbruch calls them, the "hidden stories."

Me? I'm a history man. I like it backwards and forwards. Backwards is obvious. Looking at the games and seasons of yesteryear for reassurance that, yes, the thing you want to happen has happened.

For instance, in 16-game seasons, has a 4-5 Bears team made the playoffs? Yes -- 1979. Finished 10-6. The other seven 4-5 Bears teams finished with either 5, 6, or 7 wins.

Or I'll ask -- Can a QB as old as Jay Cutler (32) make his first Super Bowl? Also yes -- 13 QBs have made their first Super Bowl at 32 or older, and 7 have won.

Sometimes I'll look for clues by comparing teams, like John Fox's first season to Trestman's first to Lovie's first to Jauron's first to Wanny's. Or I think about a team with significant defensive overhaul (1994, 2004) or one with two strong tight ends (2007) or one where we were prepping to play a strong team whose starting QB was newly injured and missing the game so we felt real confident heading in (San Fran, 2012) or anything else that ties this team to the past to lend insight to the present.

But even more than that, I like to study history facing forwards. Looking at the present to create a vision for the future. These are regular season playoff games. Every season has them. The closer a team gets to the playoffs the more impact they have, the more painful or exhilarating they become, the more they explain why a season went this way or that.

There are, I figure, three levels of regular season playoff games.

The Do-or-Die Games

These are games with actual playoff implications. We're talking the 2008 season finale loss to Houston, the 2013 finale vs. Green Bay, or the win-and-get-help finales in 1995 and 2012 when we won but missed the playoffs because someone else (the Pack and the Vikes, respectively) won too.

The Hinge Games

These are games that didn't technically have playoff implications but you just felt either at the time or looking back that the whole season hinged on the outcome. Some of these are Ws in playoff seasons -- strongest examples are the Mike Brown games in 2001, the 8 sacks Panthers game in 2005, the Eagles win in 2010.

Most, though, are losses in seasons that could have been a playoff year. Games where hope slips through fate's fingers. The overtime loss to Pittsburgh in 1995 while holding the NFC's best record at 6-2. The Marion Barber Broncos Game. The 2012 game where Russ Wilson killed us in overtime, or 2008 vs. the Vikings in Minnesota where Bernard Berrian burned us for a 99-yard touchdown.

The Vision Games

Last of all, the Vision Games.

These are de facto playoff games because they are against playoff teams. They provide a vision for how you might do in the actual playoffs.

Sometimes you lose them, like Houston and the Niners back-to-back in 2012. Sometimes you win them, like the Jets shootout in 2010. The wins are fun, of course, but the losses are cold. They dull your late season anger as you realize how a playoff trip may well have rolled, that missing the playoffs was really just a result of losing in the playoffs before the playoffs started.

Which brings us to Denver and the Packers.

Even with Manning out, this week's ballgame with the Broncos is a Vision Game. Denver can run and has arguably the league's best defense. A team destined for January success must be capable of defeating a team like these Broncos, especially with their quarterback sidelined.

The flailing Packers present another such game. They nearly always do, because there's no such thing as a great Bears team that can't beat the Pack.

As is often the case, this Bears team has fans wrestling with their visions, their hands gripping the wall, detectives in the dark. Start 0-3, people think the new coach is a failure. Win four of six, he's Ditka-in-waiting. Some people watch Jeremy Langford and see the Second Coming. Others watch Langford and say, "Very good, but I've seen this before."

Just searching. Studying. Hunting for clues. Sunday at Soldier, the case continues.


In case you were wondering...

4-5 Bears teams (game 9)

2009 (loss to San Fran, AKA The Cutler 5-INT Game) 7-9

2007 (beat Oakland, AKA The Rex Comeback Game) 7-9

2004 (beat Tennessee, AKA The Won On a Safety in Overtime Game) 5-11

1999 (beat Green Bay, AKA The Payton/Robinson Blocked Field Goal Game) 6-10

1996 (beat Tampa Bay, AKA The... nope, don't remember this one) 7-9

1993 (beat San Diego, AKA The Game That Started a 4-Game Win Streak Game) 7-9

1992 (lost to Cincy, AKA The OT Loss From Which I For Some Reason Always Remembered that Mike Singletary Had an Interception Game) 5-11