Point–Counterpoint: Hester, special teams will make difference

By Andrew Miragliotta

Prepare for pandemonium. If you thought the White Sox championship was a big deal in 2005, just wait until Lovie Smith hoists the Lombardi trophy on Sunday night. Get ready for hypothermic shirtless fans running wild, the pillaging of Gary, IN, and the resurrection of Chris Farley for a “Superfans” skit on next week’s SNL.

But to be fair to Indianapolis, Super Bowl XLI hasn’t been decided quite yet. Before they can start parading down Michigan Avenue, the Bears have some big questions to answer.

First, which Rex Grossman flew to Miami? When the young quarterback is on, Chicago bears a striking resemblance to their 1986 Championship counterparts, operating efficiently on both sides of the ball. When he’s off, the Bears barely resemble a football team. He should not be considered a bad quarterback, just a tragically inconsistent one.

If the Bears field the Rex Grossman that led the league in 100+ point-passer-rating games, then this game will be a rout. With a confident quarterback and a notoriously stingy defense prepared to build up a lead and grind out the clock, not even Peyton Manning will keep the Colts within striking distance. In the seven games when Rexy was sexy enough to break the century mark for his QB rating, he threw 18 touchdowns to only one interception, and the team averaged 38 points. For all the flak he catches, he is at times exceedingly competent, and he remains a key to Chicago’s success. At the very least, he is not Kyle Orton.

It’s difficult to ignore the numbers: Rex has posted staggering QB ratings of 10.2, 1.3, and even 0.0 (in the regular season finale, against lowly Green Bay) so far this season. His sometimes abominable play leads to a heavier reliance on the improving but still only slightly-threatening Thomas Jones/Cedric Benson running game and puts even more pressure on the defense. Yet, the Bears have managed victories in two of Rex’s three train wrecks.

Given those wins, does Rex Grossman even matter? Several times this year, the Bears bailed Grossman out when it looked like he had single-handedly cost them the game. In October’s Monday night miracle, Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester allowed him to escape with a thunderous second-half comeback, and against Minnesota, Hester again came up big with a fourth return for a touchdown. But this is the Super Bowl—the biggest stage in American sports—and the Colts are a much different story than the Vikings (6–10) or the Cardinals (5–11). The Bears’ defense will do its best to keep Chicago in the game, but to get over the hump, Grossman will need to step up.

Thanks to the return of safety Bob Sanders, the Colts have a newfound confidence against the run and an opportunistic pass defense that picked Tom Brady when it mattered most. The Bears’ defense will have their hands full come Sunday and must at least slow down the vaunted Indy passing game to even stand a chance. As popular as the adage “defense wins championships” is, Super Bowl results have at times proven otherwise, which means that Grossman definitely does matter.

So considering mismatches on both sides of the ball in favor of the Colts, how are the Bears possibly going to win this game? Simply put, they have just about every intangible in their favor. The Bears can look forward to the return of the trigger-happy Tank Johnson and a marginally better fan base in their corner, as well as the support of much of a nation that fears the apocalyptic consequences of a Peyton Manning championship.Manning has yet to really prove that he is something more than a regular season all-star. And while I wouldn’t hesitate to draft him as my fantasy league starter next season, despite what the media says, barely edging out New England in the AFC title game did not take the postseason monkey off of Manning’s back. While he came up with the win, Peyton put up below-average stats and didn’t even watch the end of the game. Instead, he stared at the ground with his head between his hands, as if he expected his team would find a way to lose.

They’re the same Colts that have choked the last several postseasons, only with a worse running game. Marvin Harrison is shoddier in the playoffs than Manning, and I’m still not convinced that Vinatieri won’t purposely shank the game-winner while Ashton Kutcher and Bill Belichick storm the field and tell Tony Dungy he’s been “Punk’d.” Heck, even Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro died on Monday—it’s bound to be a bad week for horses.

Ultimately, it’s going to be a close one, but with Hester lying in wait on punt returns and punter Brad Maynard keeping the Saints in their own 20, the Bears have the field position advantage on both sides that will push them over the top. Chicago, clear your schedules for early next week. We’ve got a parade to watch.

The pick: Chicago 24 , Indianapolis 17.