Bears must focus on building around Cutler; Week 16 notes

It was wonderful for those NFL teams that received the gift of a victory in Week 16; others essentially received coal in their stockings as the result of a loss. More on that later. Sunday night's game gave one team, the Packers, the gift of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Bears, meanwhile, were left wondering what happened to their season.

The Bears played their best football of the season in Week 11 against the San Diego Chargers, yet that was also the game in which Jay Cutler -- their star quarterback and clearly an MVP candidate at that time -- was injured trying to make a tackle on an interception. Cutler broke his thumb on the play. Not long after that, star runner Matt Forte suffered an injury, and the Bears haven't won a game since. Not to minimize Forte's injury, but the Bears were toast as soon as Cutler went down. The Bears are much like the Colts in this regard: One injury to a star player and their whole season has fallen apart.

How did this happen? How did the Monsters of the Midway go from being a playoff-type team to being eliminated in Week 16 of the season? In reality, the Bears' playoff chances were toast after the Week 14 loss to Denver -- partly because of Tim Tebow's heroics, but also because of their own mismanagement of the clock. Not being able to beat the Raiders, the Broncos or the Chiefs (with Tyler Palko at quarterback) is reason alone for not being a playoff-worthy team.

In the past, the Bears have always won with defense, kicking, and playing the field-position game. But that was in another time and another era. This Bears team is all about Cutler, not their vaunted, well-publicized Tampa-2 scheme. This five-game losing streak should make the Bears' front office acutely aware that it must do everything in its power to put talented players around Cutler. The Bears have to treat Cutler like the Packers treat Aaron Rodgers.

What does that mean? It means they must fix their offensive line so that when Cutler drops back to pass he has a chance to make a play. They can't continue to patch a line together; the Bears must put more resources into their line, starting at both guard positions. They must make it a priority to become the best line in football, in terms of talent and production. The Bears love to draft safeties, but now they better find a way to love drafting linemen.

The Bears' No. 1 priority of the offseason will not be getting Forte under contract, but defining who they want to be on offense. Re-signing Forte is an important part of the offseason, but not the hardest obstacle, thanks to the franchise tag.

Forte is a huge part of the current offense and has the talent to be a huge part of any offense. He is a building block, but with all the uncertainty surrounding current offensive coordinator Mike Martz returning, the real question is: What kind of offense do the Bears, under coach Lovie Smith, want to become?

Martz's contract is up at the end of the season and many around the NFL speculate he will not return. His offense still is effective when all the pieces are working together. His play-calling still is good. So why would the Bears not want to bring him back? Probably because the front office will have a hard time this offseason deciding if its problems on offense are scheme-related or talented-related. I am sure the Bears don't see their offensive line in the same light as I see it. Often when a coach gets fired, the front office feels he has mismanaged the personnel, and a coach feels he was not given the right pieces to make his offense work. In Chicago, there is a little bit of truth to both.

One of the hardest things to do in the NFL is call plays with an offensive line that is not good enough to protect. Pass plays never start with routes, they start with pass protections. Therefore, when the play-caller constantly is trying to adjust his protections to help a lineman, or to chip a rusher, this impacts the success the passing game will have. For example, when a right tackle can only slide protect in one direction, it cuts down the pass plays and lets the defense know the protections. And when the defense knows the protections, ity can rush accordingly. The point here is that no matter what direction Smith and the front office decide to proceed, in terms of the offense, the problems that Martz had will continue no matter who is the coach.

The Bears can continue to feel they have the offensive pieces, but on this five-game losing streak without their best player, Cutler, a few things are clear: They lack talent in the offensive line, they lack a legitimate backup quarterback (the second year in row this has been a factor), and they need more explosive players at receiver and running back. In that explosive-player group, they need to exclude Devin Hester since he is really only explosive on special teams, not in their base offense. He only has one touchdown reception and 25 catches for the season. The Bears must face the fact that Hester is a special-teamer, not an offensive playmaker.

There is much work to do in Chicago, an aging defense to repair, and an offense to define, but at least with Cutler the Bears have a starting point. This is not a team that can make one or two moves and be expected to beat the Packers or Lions. The Bears need major repairs, but to start they better hope Santa delivers some big offensive linemen to the Windy City.

Things I loved

I loved watching the Lions circle the field and celebrate their first playoff appearance since 1999. Their win against a red-hot Chargers team was really impressive as they finally seem to be healthy on defense. The Lions are an erratic team, in part because of their injuries on defense, but when they are healthy, they can be dangerous. The win against San Diego was their best of the season.

I loved watching the Giants fight for the win against the Jets. It was not a pretty game to watch, with mistakes from both teams. Even though they struggled on offense, you could feel the determination in the Giants players to prove they were the best team in the Big Apple.

I loved watching the Patriots erase a 17-point halftime deficit and rally to beat the Dolphins. In the first half, the Patriots on both sides of the ball looked like they were sleepwalking, and the Dolphins jumped all over them. But Tom Brady looked like a different player in the second half, and the Patriots had tied the game before the third quarter was finished.

Things I hated

»I hated watching the Jets allow quarterback Mark Sanchez to throw the ball 59 times in one game. Sanchez is not Brady and he must be a part of the game, not the whole game. When the Jets allow him to throw the ball that often, there is a potential for disaster. What happened to ground and pound in the most important game of the year for the Jets?

»I hated watching Adrian Peterson get injured. I hate whenever a player gets injured, but really hate when a star runner hurts a knee, knowing it will be a long grueling struggle to come back. Peterson is a determined, hard-working player, but an ACL injury with a running back takes time to get back to full strength. Even at full strength, being his old self takes even more time, and often a player doesn't regain his old form until the second year after he returns.

»I hated watching the Browns' two-minute offense at the end of the half against Baltimore, when it failed to get three easy points. Naturally, failing to get those three points hurt the Browns later in the game as they had a chance to come back and tie the score. But I really hated when they jumped offside late when they had to get the ball back, thus losing the game. The Browns had their chances against the Ravens, but had too many self-inflicted wounds.

Random thoughts

»Congratulations to Steven Jackson, who topped the 1,000-yard mark for the seventh straight season. That makes him one of just seven running backs in NFL history to accomplish the feat. For all that is wrong about the Rams this year, Jackson is right.

»Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson had the play of the year, leaping into the end zone. He is a talented player who has the biggest hands I have ever seen. I hope he continues to develop as a receiver.

»Baltimore's offense is so predictable, especially in the passing game. I am not sure they can win two playoff games running nothing but "F post" and "halfback bob." The Ravens' predictable nature on offense is one of the reasons they have a hard time being consistent on the road.

»The 49ers keep finding ways to make plays and win close games. In the playoffs, when the games are normally close, the 49ers will feel confident they can win, which is half the battle.

»The Cowboys don't look like they can stop anyone on defense right now. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan better go easy on any of his predictions this week.

»Tight end Jared Cook of the Titans can really be a force in the passing game and should be more consistent each week. Love his game, but with his size and speed, he should have more than three touchdowns this year.

»Does Bucs coach Raheem Morris still think things are all good in Tampa? His team gets worse with each game and now it doesn't even play hard for him. The Bucs have no choice but to make significant changes.

»Congratulations to Cam Newton for a great season, and for setting the rookie passing record. I hope he is not satisfied and continues to improve, understanding Vince Lombardi's most powerful quote: "The greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more." Do more next year, Cam. We all love watching you.

»Nice win by the Raiders, overcoming some huge obstacles to beat the Chiefs in overtime. The Raiders continue to be bad in their two-minute defense, and had to rely on Richard Seymour to save the day.

»Love that the Giants use Jason Pierre-Paul on the punt-rush team. Not enough teams put pressure on the opponent's punt team -- and having to block the lengthy Pierre-Paul is severe pressure. Smart move.

»Chiefs QB Kyle Orton is a free agent at the end of the year, and each time I think he has a chance to be a starter, I watch him underperform in the red zone. Orton is good between the 20s, but never seems to make the tough red-zone throw.

»Never thought Buffalo would win another game this year, and soundly beating the Broncos was impressive. The Broncos have been outscored 154-33 in the second quarter this year, which means they must do a better job with their in-game adjustments.

»I don't care where the Vikings drafted Christian Ponder, the best quarterback on the team is Joe Webb. He is a playmaker and should get better and better. The Vikings need to build around Webb, not Ponder.

»The Skins losing another home game to the lowly Vikings has to make Mike Shanahan a little nervous about his rebuilding plan. Beating the Giants sells hope; losing to the Vikings creates doubt.

»The Eagles have no one to blame for not winning the NFC East but themselves. Losing to the Cardinals and Bills haunted them and killed their playoff chances.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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