CHICAGO â€” The Bears are like a great guess hitter in baseball. They’ll give up yards as long as they can get one big stop by guessing right on third down.
Chicago leads the NFL in third-down defense this year, and overall for the past seven years, stopping teams two-thirds of the time.
But you can’t outguess Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. That’s like trying to guess what pitch Greg Maddux would throw on 3-2.
â€œThis whole game is based on that rhythm, that chess match, offense vs. defense,â€ Bears defensive end Israel Idonije said.
The Bears learned Sunday that you don’t play a football chess match against Brady and Belichick, losing 36-7 to New England.
The game was over at halftime, with Chicago trailing 33-0.
â€œThere is no 33-point play out there,â€ quarterback Jay Cutler said.
The Bears are smart enough to figure that out. But not smart enough to cover Deion Branch on a 59-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first half. With Brady in a no-huddle shotgun formation, cornerback Charles Tillman let Branch run past him at the line and never got any safety help.
â€œWe should have had someone back deep and we didn’t,â€ coach Lovie Smith said. â€œIt was as simple as that; basic Cover-4. Guess (we) didn’t see the receiver out there.â€
The good news for the Bears is that Green Bay’s 7-3 loss to Detroit means Chicago took a huge step toward the playoffs. If the Bears (9-4) beat Minnesota next week and the Packers lose at New England (11-2), Chicago would clinch the NFC North with two weeks to play because of a better division record.
â€œThe reality is we got our butts kicked and we’re still in first place in the NFC North,â€ linebacker Brian Urlacher said. â€œThat’s where we wanted to be when the season started and we still are.â€
The bad news is the Bears don’t want to just make the playoffs; they want to win when they get there.
â€œThat’s an elite team there, and to get where we want to go, those are the teams we have to beat,â€ Cutler said.
How can the Bears be expected to outwit playoff teams in a football chess match when they don’t have defenders deep on the final play of the first half?
â€œThe last few weeks, we were getting better. It all came to a crashing halt here as far as progress,â€ tight end Greg Olsen said. â€œBut by no means is our season over.â€
This loss, the Bears say, doesn’t have to linger.
â€œSometimes you need a good butt-whupping,â€ linebacker Lance Briggs said to â€œtake you off your high horse.â€
This loss ambushed the Bears.
â€œYou never see a 30-point defeat coming,â€ defensive end Julius Peppers said.
â€œThat wasn’t us out there,â€ receiver Earl Bennett said.
Brady, Belichick and the Patriots have a long history of making teams not look like themselves. Just six days earlier they destroyed a New York Jets team that thought it was the best in the NFL, 45-3.
â€œThere’s only one Belichick and one Brady in the NFL,â€ defensive tackle Tommie Harris said.
Maybe the Bears are still title contenders against every team in the NFL that doesn’t have Brady and Belichick. That won’t outguess them at every corner.
The Patriots gashed Chicago’s No. 3-ranked defense for 475 yards.
â€œYou can’t let them dictate what you do,â€ Harris said. â€œOnce you start trying to play the guessing game, they’ll take you right out of your defense.â€
Brady, Belichick and the Patriots are the worst possible matchup for the Bears, especially in the snow. The Patriots are 10-0 in snow games under Belichick. But that doesn’t mean Chicago can’t beat other good teams.
â€œWe’ll take our medicine and move on,â€ safety Chris Harris said. â€œI still feel we’re a good team. Nobody can tell me differently.â€
Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.