The result of the Bears' defensive end play Sunday is likely to have a lot to do with the end result of Super Bowl XLI.
If Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is given enough time to survey the field, wait for a receiver to come open and throw in rhythm, it's not a question of whether or not he'll hurt the Bears, it's: How badly will he hurt them?
"He's got a strong arm, he's accurate, and he knows the defenses," Bears left end Adewale Ogunleye said. "He puts his offense in the best possible situations to win it. We've got to get him off track because, once he gets rolling, he's pretty hard to stop."
Think runaway fright train. Manning led the NFL with a 101.0 passer rating and 31 TD passes. He was second with 4,397 passing yards and third with a completion percentage of 65.0.
The obvious solution is to put pressure on the Colts' nine-year veteran, who is the only quarterback in NFL history with seven 4,000-yard passing seasons.
Backup Mark Anderson led the Bears with a team rookie-record 12 sacks, followed by right end Alex Brown with 7 and Ogunleye with 6 1/2. They produced 25 1/2 of the Bears' 40 sacks, and the burden will be on them to get to Manning.
"That's going to be real important," Anderson said. "We have to do whatever we can to get in his face a lot, get our hands up if we can't get to him, try to corrupt his whole game, try to get in his head mentally, and I think that's going to stop him."
The problem for the Bears' three leading pass rushers is that Manning rarely gets sacked. He was dropped just 14 times while throwing every one of the Colts' 557 passes this season. That's one sack for every 40 passes. Manning has practically mastered the art of not getting caught holding the ball.
"He knows exactly where the defensive linemen are going to be at all times," Ogunleye said. "He knows what his linemen are capable of and how long they are capable of blocking. He doesn't hold the ball longer than that.
"The play-action pass is really good. They do a good job of mixing it up so the defensive lines get stuck at the line of scrimmage because they're not sure if it's run or pass. We all know you have to stop the run first."
So what's a defensive end to do?
"You can do a lot of things to affect a pass play other than sacking the quarterback," Brown said. "You can still get pressure on him, you can get around his feet, make him move his feet, and not let him throw on time, or before he wants to. That's what we have to do if we can't get to the quarterback."
But, having said that, Brown admitted the Bears cannot accept a situation where they don't get in Manning's face.
"First and foremost, we have to get to the quarterback, no matter what people have or haven't done in the past," Brown said. "As the Chicago Bears, we have to get there."
That's been a problem since Tommie Harris suffered a season-ending hamstring injury on Dec. 3. Since opponents no longer had to worry about double-teaming the disruptive defensive tackle, they devoted more attention to the Bears' ends, and the pass rush faltered. It rebounded some in the postseason, as the Bears got 3 sacks in each of their first two playoff games, including 2 by Ogunleye and 1 each by Brown and Anderson.
But it won't be enough for the Bears to pressure Manning every once in a while Sunday. They need to bring the heat early and keep it on for 60 minutes.
"You try to set a tone (early) of how the day's going to go," Brown said, "but you don't ever want him to be able to sit back there and throw the ball around. It doesn't mean a whole lot if you get after him early and then you don't get after him late because late is when the game's on the line.
"When it's third-and-long, or right after they get a turnover if they go play-action pass and try to throw it deep, you HAVE to be able to get after the quarterback then That's what we do we're supposed to — get sacks. It's important for this team if we want to win."
Manning has had rare games when pressure up the middle seemed to fluster him, but sans Harris, the Bears can't count on that. They have to rely on pressure off the edge, and they can't count on rattling an old pro like Manning, but they can make him squirm.
"You don't rattle him," Brown said. "You just hope he misses the passes. That guy's good."
Count middle linebacker Brian Urlacher among those who want a contract extension for Lovie Smith, the NFL's lowest-paid coach.
Smith is making $1.35 million this season, which is half of what the Dolphins are paying defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Smith has one more year remaining on his original deal from 2004. Speculation is that Smith's yearly salary could more than triple with his next contract.
"I want him to be there as long as I'm there," Urlacher said. "I couldn't imagine playing for anyone else after playing for him the last three years. He's a great man; a great coach. He knows football. Anyone who knows him or talks to him respects him. He's a great guy.
"He's great to play for because he always let's you know where you stand. If you want to talk to him, you can go talk to him. His door is always open for us. Sometimes you don't want to, but he'll call you in there."
"I think in any situation as a quarterback you're under fire," Grossman said. "I don't care who you are, it's a position that just comes with it. The ball's in your hand every single play, so you're the guy that people look at. It pretty much goes head coach and then quarterback, so that's a responsibility that I have taken on."
Grossman credits coach Lovie Smith with making it easier for him to overcome the five meltdown games that included 16 interceptions and made him a lightning rod for naysayers.
"I know it comes with the territory," Grossman said, "but it's also great to have a head coach who understands that and sticks by you and has a lot of confidence in your abilities, even if you may not be playing up to your best. He knows that eventually you're going to snap out of it and be a great quarterback, and that's what he's told me all year."
In all but one of his disastrous outings, Grossman came back the next week with a solid performance.
He returns with 46.5 career sacks, including an AFC-best 15 in 2003, a Pro Bowl appearance, and a six-year, $33 million contract that runs though 2009. Ogunleye was a promising NFL player as a junior at Indiana, but knee surgery as a senior scared everyone away on draft day.
"The NFL is a bunch of highs and lows, and football is a bunch of highs and lows," Ogunleye said. "I think the lowest point might have been right out of college when I had the knee injury because, when you're undrafted in the NFL, it's hard to get in. For me to do that, and to get to play at a high level, I think that was really big for me.
"And then when I got here (to the Bears in a trade just before the start of the 2004 season) I played hurt in the first year (getting just 5.0 sacks), and that was pretty low. I had really high expectations for myself in the city of Chicago and whether it was injury wise or whatever I wasn't able to do what I wanted to do. But I'm just happy that I went through all of that."
Ogunleye rebounded to get 10 sacks in 2005 but had just 6.5 this year, although he has added one in each of the playoff games. He also had a sack in last season's playoff loss to the Panthers.
"I've played well in all of the playoff games that I've been here," Ogunleye said. "That's really big because when they bring you in, they want you to be able to perform in big games and I've been able to do that. I've got to give credit to the coaches for putting me in that position, but I have made the most of my opportunities in the playoffs."
"It's unsubstantiated," Toub said. "There's nothing to it. Total speculation really is what it is."
Toub's contract expires after this season, and John Harbaugh, who was the Eagles' special teams coordinator when Toub was in Philadelphia, recently became the team's secondary coach.
"Now there's a spot open, and people are jumping to conclusions that I'm going back," Toub said. "My contract is up at the end of the year. But, as with (head coach) Lovie (Smith), I'm sure they're going to address it at the end of the year."
Toub received a tearful phone call from his wife Cheryl on Monday after a local real estate broker called and inquired about listing their house after she heard on the radio the family was moving.
"That guy is shifty. They talk about Michael Vick, but Brady's shifty," a grinning Urlacher said. "He's faster than he looks on TV. He juked me, what can I say? I thought he was going to slide and he didn't.
"I'm still taking grief for that, obviously, because you're still asking me about it."
"I didn't say his facial expressions don't change," Brown said. "He doesn't always look the same, and he doesn't always have a smile. If he doesn't have a smile, he's probably upset. He doesn't yell, but he talks to you and makes you feel terrible by just talking calmly to you. Sometimes I'd rather just be yelled at. Just yell at me, gosh, and get it over with."
BY THE NUMBERS: In QB Rex Grossman's five meltdown performances this season he threw 16 interceptions. In his 13 other starts, including the playoffs, Grossman threw just five picks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our personality is that we just keep banging our heads against the wall. We're going to keep trying. Even if it doesn't work at first, we're going to keep trying. We never give up on anything." — Bears C Olin Kreutz on the ground attack.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Where have we heard this before?
Head coach Mike McCarthy made reference to "a couple of weeks" when asked on a national radio show during Super Bowl week about how soon a decision by quarterback Brett Favre about his playing future could be announced.
The off-season waiting game with Favre has reached a month, which is longer than he had let on it would take. A teary-eyed Favre said in a post-game interview with NBC following the Packers' season-ending victory at Chicago on New Year's Eve that he would probably have something to say in a couple of weeks.
Speaking by telephone with Jim Rome during an on-air interview originating from Miami on Jan. 30, McCarthy indicated that nothing was imminent about getting a "Yes" or a "No" from Favre for next season.
"It's simply a decision that (his wife) Deanna and Brett are working through, and we hope to know here in the next couple of weeks," McCarthy said.
The second-year coach said he had chatted with Favre by phone three days earlier.
In subsequent interviews with Rome and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McCarthy alluded to personal and family reasons, not playing ability or team concerns, as the basis for Favre's decision on whether to return for a 17th NFL season or retire. If anything, the 37-year-old Favre had to have been encouraged by both a fairly productive season on his part and the league's youngest team's winning its last four games to finish 8-8 and narrowly miss the playoffs.
"It really has nothing to do with the team," McCarthy told the Journal Sentinel. "I think Brett's questions last year (before deciding to keep playing) were with regards to so many new things: new coach, new staff, (new) terminology, new players. The issue of whether to play (in 2007), from my understanding, really doesn't have anything to do with the team."
McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson had informed Favre before he returned to his home in Mississippi after the past season that they would like him back.
Despite Favre's proclamation on national TV that he wouldn't keep the team in suspense like he did until late April last year, neither McCarthy nor Thompson is pressing their field leader for an answer. At least not yet, though the presumption is they'll want one before free agency starts March 2.
"Everyone understands the time frame we're dealing with, but we haven't put a timeline on it," McCarthy said in the newspaper article. "Obviously, we just don't want to get into what we got into last year."
McCarthy told Rome that all bets are off on how this off-field game will turn out.
"Last year, I felt that he was going to play," McCarthy said. "I think this year there's a lot of things that you would think would point to him playing again. But, it's really a decision between Brett and his family and if he wants to go through the grind of another NFL season. I really don't know."
Packers Pro Bowl receiver Donald Driver uttered the same latter sentiment a day earlier on Rome's show while making a promotional appearance in Miami.
"Two years ago, I thought he would probably retire. He didn't. Then, last year, I said he was coming back, and he did. So, I don't know," Driver said. "I guess I would stay in the middle of this one. I really don't know what he's going to do. If he comes back, it makes it easy for me to play the game; it makes it easy for me just to go out there and play. If he don't come back, then I wish the best for him, and I'll be part of that legacy."
Driver added that Favre is entitled to take his time in making up his mind about next season.
"I don't think guys like me or anyone else in the National Football League or anyone around the world needs to pressure him to make a decision no time soon. He earned that," Driver said. "He can sit back and relax. And, when he's decided, he'll let everyone know."
Davis, at 38 the Packers' oldest player, is the first of nine players slated to be unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the team.
His deal reportedly includes a $40,000 bonus that will be earned by participating in 85 percent of the team's off-season workouts. As a vested veteran, Davis will have a salary-cap charge of only $475,000, including the bonus.
McKenzie, who has been in the Packers' front office for 13 years, was one of seven candidates to interview for the position in the last two weeks. The 43-year-old McKenzie is a native of Knoxville, Tenn., and played collegiately at the University of Tennessee.
Mike Reinfeldt, the Seahawks' vice president of football administration, reportedly is the front-runner to replace longtime Titans GM Floyd Reese, who resigned after the season.
Reinfeldt was Green Bay's chief financial officer from 1991 to ‘93 and vice president of administration from 1994 to ‘98.
McCarthy has changed up his minicamp schedule from his first season last year. Only rookies and first-year players will report for the first minicamp May 4-6. A mandatory minicamp for all players will be May 18-20.
Dates have yet to be set for organized team activities in June.
Butler and Brooks will be honored at a banquet July 21 at Lambeau Field.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Right now, he's still the coordinator. I'm still the linebackers coach. He will break all ties. I will still coach the linebackers once again and help (head coach) Mike McCarthy with whatever he needs." — Winston Moss on how Bob Sanders will continue to coordinate the defense, even though Moss was given the added title of assistant head coach Jan. 15.