Bears look to prove 13-3 was no fluke

Team's performance could decide future for Smith, Grossman

January 14, 2007|By David Haugh | David Haugh,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Win or else.

The Chicago Bears' NFC semifinal matchup today at Soldier Field against the Seattle Seahawks cannot be framed any other way without diminishing the significance to the short- and long-term future of the franchise.

Since losing to the Carolina Panthers 364 days ago, the Bears have longed for this postseason platform to show they deserve the type of respect only winning a playoff game produces.

Many fans have spent the last year wondering what to make of coach Lovie Smith and waiting for the proving ground of the playoffs before deciding whether Smith's 24 wins over the past two regular seasons mean anything.

Enthusiasm over the Bears' 13-3 season has been tempered by a late-season defensive slide and the wild inconsistency of quarterback Rex Grossman.

The Bears can partly blame themselves for raising expectations and the standards by winning their first seven games in convincing fashion. The downside of such early dominance, evident over the past month, was that now neither they nor their following will be satisfied without getting to the Super Bowl.

The confluence of factors makes the Seahawks game the most important for the Bears of the post-Mike Ditka era, 60 minutes that could shape how the organization approaches the next 12 months and how tightly this Bears town embraces the team that unifies it most.

In some ways, the game also will serve as a Chicago referendum on Smith, who has a 29-20 overall record since replacing Dick Jauron in 2004.

Winning allows Smith to relax and remove some doubts about his game-day acumen that developed after the Bears never adjusted defensively to Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith in last year's playoff loss. Losing would reignite the debate whether Smith is the right coach to take the Bears to the level of serious Super Bowl contenders.

Nobody can predict how a loss might affect the level of the Bears' commitment to Grossman. His contract runs through next season, and he needs to avoid being the reason for a playoff loss or risk jeopardizing his future in Chicago.

On the other hand, if he plays as well as many expect after putting in extra time last week, Grossman could justify the faith Smith and the organization placed in him and be in line for a multiyear extension in the offseason.

David Haugh writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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