Bears

AFC, NFC championships compelling beyond Tom Brady-Peyton Manning

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AFC, NFC championships compelling beyond Tom Brady-Peyton Manning

The boxing cliché that “styles make fights” says that contrasting strengths make for the best competitions, and the matchups in the AFC and NFC championship games this weekend are all of that. And these extend far deeper than just Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Besides, those two aren’t ever on the field at the same time anyhow.

Other matchups are far more relevant to game conduct and outcomes.

Coaches

Both championship games involve teams with head coaches from opposite sides of the football. Offense vs. defense. Both games.

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Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is a go-downfield boss who reined in quarterback Carson Palmer in a overtime win against the Green Bay Packers. Arians says now that the Cardinals will get back to their core style, the one that made Arizona No. 1 in total yardage and No. 2 in points per game.

Against him is Ron Rivera, he of the ’85 Bears, aggressive defense (part of where he and Lovie Smith diverged sharply) and the No. 6 overall defense.

Bill Belichick’s legend owes in very large part to the quarterbacking of Brady, but in even larger measure to Belichick’s New England defense.

Against that will be former NFL quarterback Gary Kubiak’s Denver Broncos, the one offense among the final four not ranked in the top three in points scored. But the Broncos also the only one who didn’t have its starting quarterback for all 16 games, yet was solid enough to win five games starting a backup quarterback (Brock Osweiler).

Offenses vs. defenses

In one of the key tipping-point stats:

Arizona ranks No. 1 in yards per pass play. Palmer’s 8.70-yard average is nearly a full yard more than Cam Newton’s (7.75) for Carolina. Carolina is No. 2 against the pass.

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Meaning: The NFC championship game has the conference’s best passing offense against its best pass defense.

The only defense better per pass than the Panthers is the Broncos. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 2) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 3) were better than Brady and New England in the AFC this year. The Broncos did allow seven pass plays of 20 yards or longer in defeating Pittsburgh in the divisional round, but more than half were short tosses with yards after catch, and the Broncos didn't allow Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers a single touchdown pass.

Meaning: The thing that the Patriots do best — pass the football — is the thing that the Broncos are best at stopping.

Ball security

If there is a decision point in either game, it is in turnovers. And then only in the AFC.

Three of the four remaining quarterbacks — Brady, Manning, Newton — have thrown zero interceptions in their one-game postseasons. Palmer, in what was a decidedly shaky playoff game, threw two. Carolina led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover differential. Arizona stood fourth with a plus-9.

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Carolina had the NFL’s best passer-rating-against this season (73.5). No team intercepted more than the Panthers’ 24 pass pick-off’s. Turnovers decide football games and if Palmer and the Cardinals commit them in Charlotte, they will lose.

Brady-Manning? The two rank 5-6 with nearly identical career passer ratings, reflective of ball security. The Broncos led the NFL in sack rate and ended the Steelers season with a final takedown of Roethlisberger.

But the Patriots were 4-2 in games in which Brady was sacked three or more times. Denver defensive lineman Antonio Smith said that Brady may whine a bit, looking for penalty flags, when he’s hit, but Smith also said that hits don’t particularly faze Brady, either. 

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Before Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey met with the media on Wednesday, Allen Robinson was curious what his position coach would say about him in public. 

“I just told him, I don’t know you,” Furrey quipped. “Who’s Allen Robinson?”

Furrey, of course, knows who Robinson is. But the point behind that joke is that Furrey, the Bears’ court wide receivers coach in four years, is still getting to know all of his receivers — let alone the one who hasn’t participated in a practice yet. For all the positivity that's easy to find around Halas Hall these days, the Bears' biggest offseason acquisition hasn't taken a rep yet. 

The good news for the Bears, of course, is that Robinson’s past play speaks for itself. He combined for 153 catches, 2,883 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016, and has been adamant he’ll return to that high level of play when he’s cleared to practice. The Bears were confident enough in Robinson’s medicals to guarantee him a little over $25 million in March, per Spotrac, about a month before they let Cameron Meredith sign with the New Orleans Saints largely over medical concerns (Meredith’s torn ACL was viewed as more serious than Robinson’s, in short). 

So the getting-to-know-you phase for Furrey and Robinson is largely taking place off the field in the meeting rooms of Halas Hall. 

“What a great young man,” Furrey said. “He’s come in here, obviously, rehabbing and doing all those things. But he’s alert, he comes to meetings, he’s ready to go. Really, really smart, you can tell that from the beginning and he’s a professional.”

What Furrey, in particular, likes about Robinson is that he’s an “alpha,” but is far more than all talk and no action. 

“And a lot of times that alpha talks a lot and they don’t really put it out there,” Furrey said. “He kind of has that alpha quietness to him. He understands what’s going on, you can look at him and you just kind of get that feel of he has a great understanding of how to approach this game at this level. Obviously he’s been highly successful for a couple years with some big numbers, but he doesn’t act like that. He’s still hungry, he wants to learn, and I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which is a good trait to have too. So we’re excited about that.”

The expectation all along has been for Robinson to be cleared to fully participate in training camp practices. So while coach Matt Nagy said last week Robinson is “ahead of the game,” that may not mean he takes part in the final round of OTAs next week or veteran minicamp the first week of June. 

But while Robinson can’t prove himself to his new coaches on the field yet, he’s doing the right things off the field to make a positive first impression. 

“He knows you gotta come in early, he knows you gotta be the last one to leave, he knows you gotta study,” Furrey said. “It doesn’t matter five years in, six years in, you gotta take notes. It doesn’t matter if you hear it 10 times, you just gotta keep taking notes. He’s been really good at that, and I’ve been really impressed with that. I’ve been able to get on the field with him a little bit, just kind of throwing some balls to him, and I didn’t know he was that big. But obviously we’re excited for it to happen out there.” 

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Mitch Trubisky has been set up for a huge season in 2018 with all the firepower the Chicago Bears added on offense. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Trey Burton will give the second-year quarterback a variety of explosive targets to generate points in bunches.

None of the headline-grabbing moves will matter, however, if the offensive line doesn't do its job. 

According to Numberfire.com, the Bears' starting five could be the offense's Achilles heel. They were ranked 21st in the NFL and described as poor in pass protection.

Last year, the Bears ranked 26th in Sack NEP per drop back and 23rd in sack rate. These issues were especially apparent after Trubisky took over. In the games that [Kyle] Long played, their sack rate was 8.2%. It was actually 7.2% in the games that he missed. They struggled even when Long was healthy.

The Bears added Iowa's James Daniels in the second round of April's draft and he's expected to start at guard alongside Long. Cody Whitehair will resume his role as the starting center, with Charles Leno, Jr. and Bobby Massie at offensive tackle.

If Long comes back healthy and Daniels lives up to his draft cost, they should be a good run-blocking team from the jump. But Long has played just 18 games the past two years and is entering his age-30 season, so that's far from a lock. On top of that, the pass blocking was suspect last year and remains a mystery entering 2018.

The biggest addition to the offensive line is Harry Hiestand, the accomplished position coach who returns to Chicago after once serving in the same role under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. He most recently coached at Notre Dame and helped develop multiple first-round picks. He's going to have a huge impact.

The good news for the Bears is they weren't the lowest-ranked offensive line in the NFC North. The Vikings came in at No. 25. The Packers checked-in at No. 13, while the Lions were 16th.