No question about it, a postseason run by the Bears is primarily dependent on the play of quarterback Rex Grossman. When he's played well – he had seven games with a passer rating over 100 – this team is potent offensively and awfully tough to beat. When he's played poorly – he had five games with a passer rating below 40 – the Monsters of the Midway are very beatable. Look for tight end Desmond Clark in the middle of a banged-up Seattle secondary because when he is heavily involved in the offense, Grossman is much more effective. You can bet that offensive coordinator Ron Turner will certainly rely on his running game, especially if the weather is as cold and snowy as expected.
2. Will Tank Johnson be able to put his troubles aside and be a playmaker again?
Johnson is still subjected to home confinement and has a long way to go before his legal battles are over, but his teammates have had his back since day one. Tommie Harris isn't returning this season, Bears fans, so defensive coordinator Ron Rivera will have to make do with the pieces he has in place whether he likes it or not. Aside from Harris, Johnson was the most productive member of the D-line with 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 14 games. He will be playing Harris's three-technique tackle position as opposed to his regular spot at the nose, but he should be able to have some success since Seattle features a pair of journeymen guards in Chris Gray and Floyd ‘Pork Chop' Womack. If one thing's for sure, it's that Johnson should be plenty motivated to forget about his personal problems for three hours and make himself comfortable in the Seahawks' backfield.
3. Has Cedric Benson taken over as The Man in the backfield, or is it Thomas Jones time?
Jones started all 16 games and had a fine season, rushing for 1,210 yards and half a dozen touchdowns. But Benson really came on strong down the stretch and put up 647 yards and six TDs of his own, including a 109-yard effort in Week 17 against Green Bay. The ground game will have to be a factor for the Bears both to protect Grossman and to help keep the ball away from Matt Hasselbeck & Company. Jones and Benson appeared to be adversaries earlier in the year, but they seem to be complementing each other better than ever and have been one of the best one-two tailback tandems in the NFL since midseason. Expect Jones to start as usual and get the bulk of the carries, but if the Bears are protecting a lead in the second half, Benson is better equipped to move the chains and keep the clock running.
4. When will Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye start pressuring the QB like they can?
The secondary has come under heavy scrutiny for giving up some big plays in the passing game the last quarter of the season. While they have not covered very well, especially with both Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman missing time with injuries, the front four has not been much help. The main reason the Bears had the No. 1 passing defense in the NFL half way through the year was the fact that opposing quarterbacks had very little time to throw, not necessarily because of airtight coverage downfield. Brown had seven sacks on the year but just two in his last seven games, and Ogunleye was credited with 6.5 QB takedowns in 2006 but none in his last three contests. Rookie Mark Anderson has been fantastic in spot duty and actually led the team with 12 sacks, but the guys in the starting lineup have to start applying more pressure to make life easier for their compatriots in the secondary.
5. Is John Tait going to be healthy enough to play like the John Tait we are used to seeing?
Three-quarters of the way through the year, but Bears had perhaps the healthiest offensive line in the league. The starting lineup – center Olin Kreutz, guards Ruben Brown and Roberto Garza, and tackles Fred Miller and John Tait – had remained intact and played better as the season progressed both in the running game and in pass protection. Jones and Benson combined for almost 1,900 yards on the ground, and their 25 sacks allowed were good for sixth-fewest in the NFL. But Tait rolled an ankle and was replaced by reserve John St. Clair for two games, and Tait did not play very well in his return from injury in Week 17 against the Packers. The former BYU Cougar used the bye week to heal and is not listed on the injury report, but he'll have his hands fill facing end Grant Wistrom and linebacker Julian Peterson blitzing off the edge.
6. How much of a difference will it make with Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman back?
The Bears had to play the last month of the season with either Vasher or Tillman on the sideline in street clothes. This forced nickelback Ricky Manning Jr. into the starting lineup at corner, and although he has been wonderful this year in the nickel package, he was subpar in the starting lineup. Vasher was a Pro-Bowler in 2005 and Tillman probably should have been this season, and although neither one is considered to be a true lockdown guy, they are nonetheless a fantastic combination. Plus, losing Manning as the nickel man put guys like Devin Hester and Chris Harris in coverage situations, and neither one of them proved up to the task. Tillman was upgraded from questionable to probable earlier this week, but that could change in a hurry if his back spasms act up again.
7. Can Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander return to their 2005 form?
Both Hasselbeck and Alexander missed a good portion of this season with injuries, but even when they have been healthy, they haven't quite been themselves. Hasselbeck threw 15 interceptions in just 12 games and saw his passer rating drop from 98.2 last year to 76 this year. Alexander was the MVP of the league in 2005, but injuries and a less-effective offensive line limited him to 896 yards in 10 games. Even in last week's winning effort over Dallas in the wild card round, Hasselbeck completed only 18 of 36 passes and was intercepted twice, and Alexander managed just 69 yards on 24 carries. These two were arguably the best passing-running combo in the league on the way to Super Bowl XL a year ago, but for myriad reasons, neither has enjoyed that kind of success lately.
8. Will Seattle's undersized defense be at a disadvantage if it's a winter wonderland?
According to the weather forecast as of Saturday evening, it's supposed to be about 32 degrees at game time with the proverbial ‘wintry mix' in the air. Whether that means rain or snow or both, we'll see. Regardless, Seattle is one of the more undersized defenses in all the NFL because their scheme is predicated on speed and a variety of blitzes from linebackers and defensive backs. If weather is a factor, that probably means more work for Jones and Benson on the ground for the Bears and increased potential to wear out a smaller Seahawks defense that will have some of its speed neutralized. Seattle's front four averages just 284 pounds per man as opposed to 308 for Chicago's offensive line, so a messy track should favor the Bears in the trenches.
9. How much of a factor will the Soldier Field crowd be if Rex Grossman starts slowly?
Chicago season-ticket holders are no strangers to cold weather along the lakefront, but whether or not they are a factor in the game will depend greatly on the play of Grossman. He was booed mercilessly in that season-ending stinkbomb against the hated Packers, and even when he has played well, many Bears fans have been Brian Griese supporters since the day he was signed as a free agent. If Grossman gets off to a poor start and throws an interception in the early going, the Soldier Field faithful will most certainly jump all over him again. The defense will always have the support they deserve, although you could have heard a pin drop in the midst of Tampa Bay's furious second-half comeback in Week 15. This is a crowd that has watched their beloved Bears lose three straight home playoff games over the years, so there are plenty of reasons for them to be nervous.
10. Can Seattle pull off the upset, or are the Bears simply a better football team right now?
The Seahawks may be the defending NFC champions, but this is nowhere near the same team that played in the Super Bowl a year ago. Aside from the season-ending losses to Mike Brown and Tommie Harris on defense, the Bears are about as healthy as they can be heading into this game. Seattle, on the other hand, is completely decimated in the secondary and hasn't played with any consistency in 2006 no matter who's been had in the lineup. But as we've come to expect with the Midway Monsters, everything seems to hinge on Grossman's ability to avoid turnovers and catastrophic mistakes. Chicago's defense also has something to prove after being thrashed the last quarter of the season and should have Vasher, Tillman, and safety Todd Johnson all at full strength for the first time in quite a while.
PREDICTION: BEARS 23, SEAHAWKS 13