The Bears came out flat and didn't look at all like a playoff quality team. As I said a few weeks ago, I think that if the Bears starters played more against the Vikings, they would have been sharper for the game against the Panthers.
For example: The defense under performed on almost every play. For the first time all season an opponent went over 400 yards of offense and with the starters on the field scored 29 points. That should tell you something.
The problems on special teams were a surprise to me. Brad Maynard played poorly and I can't imagine why. He's been a strong contributor during his time in Chicago but he was barely able to punt beyond his shadow. The coverage and returns were also poor. The Bears rarely got decent field position, while time and again Carolina was able to secure good yardage on runbacks.
The playoffs tend to revel a team's weaknesses and that certainly was the case for the Bears. Chicago was the No. 2 seed in the NFC and they just weren't able to live up to those expectations. The offense put up a few more points than usual, but pretty much played at the level that we've seen them all season, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The defense was obviously disappointing. Special teams didn't execute. Against that Panthers all three phases of the game needed to be a whole lot better.
As the game went on I questioned why Mike Brown practiced last week. He should have been saved all his effort for this game. It seemed as if he needed more rehab and that his earlier injury hadn't healed yet, a concern that became a fact when he was taken out with a calf problem.
Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said after the game that it was reminiscent of the Bears earlier contest against Cincinnati, which was an accurate analysis. Things got way out of control very early in both instances. When the Bears are playing catch-up from the first quarter, the outcome usually isn't that good.
Clearly the Panthers were a lot better team this time around. You could see that in the game they played the previous week as well. They were peaking at the perfect time. And look at the manpower they have on their roster. WR Steve Smith is one of the top players in the NFL. QB Jake Delhomme is cool under pressure. It mystifies me that the Bears didn't have a better plan to protect against Smith or stop Delhomme. To me, it seemed as if Smith and Delhomme were able to execute at will. Play after play you'd see Smith making yet another catch.
As the second quarter wore on, the Bears finally had a decent drive going. The Panthers had Muhsin Muhammad covered pretty well with two guys on him most of the time. And you'd think that Rivera would have noticed that and done the same thing for Smith. But Bernard Berrian, Justin Gage and Thomas Jones helped the Bears get back in the game.
Rex Grossman seemed to catch fire, finally, executing well and getting the yardage they'd lacked to that point in the game. That's what we'd been waiting for during most of the first half. It made me wonder if offensive coordinator Ron Turner had suddenly left the booth and somebody else was putting decent plays into the mix. The Bears even had a chance in the fourth quarter. A Grossman touchdown and a two-point conversion was all it would have taken to tie the game. But it just didn't happen.
As the game wore on, the Bears couldn't sustain any positive momentum, Smith continued to run all over the defense and put up points. At the end, the Panthers came out on top. It was an unfortunate end to an exciting season. But I don't begrudge Carolina their win. They played exceedingly well and should represent their division well in the NFC championship.
Despite the disappointment, there's a lot for the Bears and their fans to feel good about. It's been a good season, a surprisingly good season, in fact, and for that we can all be proud. The Bears are headed in the right direction. It should be fun to see what they do in the off-season and where they go from here.
We'll take a look in the next edition.
Mike Pyle played for the Bears from 1961-69, including a Pro Bowl selection following the '63 season.