Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher was in the prime of his career, and he looked to be surrounded with as much talent as ever. Fellow linebacker Lance Briggs, safety Mike Brown, cornerback Nathan Vasher, and tackle Tommie Harris were coming off their first Pro Bowl berths and still had plenty of room for development. The coverage units were already the best in football, and the addition of rookie Devin Hester was sure to add some much needed fireworks in the return game.
But what about last year's 29th-ranked offense?
Quarterback Rex Grossman was finally able to start all 16 games in 2006, and despite a roller coaster of a season for him, the Bears were the second-highest scoring team in the league at 26.7 points per game. The two-pronged running attack of starter Thomas Jones and super sub Cedric Benson produced 1,857 yards on the ground at an impressive clip of 4.1 yards per carry. Bernard Berrian morphed into a reliable secondary target opposite veteran Muhsin Muhammad, and tight end Desmond Clark had the best season of his career.
So, based on what the prognosticators predicted, this should be a Super Bowl team, right?
As Bugs Bunny likes to say, "Ehhhhh, could be."
The defense did have the look as the best in the business back in October, but the losses of Brown and Harris to season-ending injuries proved to be too much to overcome. The Monsters of the Midway may have finished the year ranked fifth in total defense, but they were gashed the last four games by St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Green Bay - none of whom will make the playoffs. First it was stopping the run that was such a concern, but now, teams are throwing the ball at will.
Suddenly, if the Bears want to make a run at Super Bowl XLI, it could very well be the offense that has to lead the way.
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner has received a fair amount of praise and a good deal of criticism this season, but overall, this team is light years better on offense than it was a year ago. However, Grossman's up-and-play has been tough to swallow for many Bears fans. He is tied for the league lead in games with a passer rating over 100 (seven), but he also leads the league in games with a passer rating under 40 (five).
Although the Bears don't have an opponent to prepare for just yet because they earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye, Turner said that his offense will still get a lot of work done this week.
"This week is going to be good," Turner said after practice at Halas Hall on Wednesday. "This week is good. I could just see it today. I mean, our guys came out determined and really focused, and they know we didn't play well [last Sunday]. We didn't play well. We didn't coach well. We didn't do anything well on offense. We've got to get back to basics."
After three fairly productive and turnover-free performances, Grossman was nothing short of awful in the season finale at Soldier Field against the rival Packers. Even though the game meant nothing in the grand scheme of things, a passer rating of zero is simply unacceptable. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half before giving way to backup Brian Griese.
According to Turner, Grossman wasn't the only member of his offense who had a bad night and needs to turn it around.
"He's still a young player," he said of Grossman. "He's still learning the intensity and the preparation and everything that goes along with it. And you have to have that every week. He wasn't the only one who didn't play well on Sunday. We had a lot of guys not play well, and we didn't coach well. So we've all got to bounce back and do a better job this week."
Even though the Bears have a week off and don't yet know who they will face in the divisional round, Turner actually believes his team has an opponent already.
"We know who our opponent is," he said. "Our opponent is the Chicago Bears. And that's what we're going to focus on this week and nothing else. Next week we'll zero in on who we're playing. But still, the emphasis is going to be on us."
Turner isn't going to alter his routine and is treating the playoff bye just as he would a regular season bye.
"We're not going to do anything different than we normally would," he said. "[During a] bye week, we pretty much split the reps with ones and twos. Not just quarterbacks but all positions, and we pretty much do that. And then we get into game week next week like we always do. Rex will get about 80% of the reps as he always has. And Brian will prepare and study and focus, and he'll be ready if needed."
Turner was asked if his gameplan and play-calling had been altered in any way with home-field advantage wrapped up by Week 15, and he admitted that it was.
"It's definitely affected by it a little bit," he said. "There's things that you don't want to show and things you don't want to do, and there's things you do that maybe to throw off some tendencies, so you have all that stuff in mind. But really, we went into the last two games, [and] we were trying to win the games. So it has a little effect on it. But really, we wanted to win those games."
Based on what happens in the wild card round, the Bears could face either the Giants, Cowboys, or Seahawks next weekend.