- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

Other than Rex Grossman’s poor play at quarterback, a lot appears to be working in the Chicago Bears’ favor as they enter the NFC playoffs.

The Bears won’t have to beat Philadelphia and Dallas, and they won’t have to leave Solider Field during their quest for a Super Bowl appearance.

The Bears have sensational special teams led by return man Devin Hester (six touchdowns) and All-Pro kicker Robbie Gould (32-for-36 on field goals).

The Bears’ defense, a unit that produced 40 sacks and 54 takeaways, ranks fifth in the NFL.

Some would consider Chicago (13-3) a lock to reach Miami. But that’s not the case.

The NFC may not feature a team good enough to beat any of the remaining AFC playoff teams, but what the conference lacks in quality, it makes up for in parity.

Breaking down five components — rushing offense/defense, passing offense/defense and special teams — and totaling the points, Philadelphia and New Orleans each finished with 14 points. Chicago tallied 13 points, while Seattle finished with nine.

Rushing offense

1. Philadelphia; 2. New Orleans; 3. Seattle; 4. Chicago

Seattle’s Shaun Alexander is the best running back left, but he’s not healthy — he gained only 69 yards on 24 carries (including 20 yards on his last rush) against the Cowboys.

The Eagles are still alive because of Brian Westbrook. He gives them their best chance of winning in New Orleans. After a regular season of 1,916 combined rushing/receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, Westbrook rushed for 141 yards against the Giants.

Somehow, Westbrook did not get a Pro Bowl invitation.

“He’s just an awesome player to have on your team,” Eagles quarterback Jeff Garcia said. “He’s a true football player and he understands the game. He wasn’t acknowledged as a Pro Bowler, but he definitely is an MVP here.”

New Orleans ranked 19th in rushing, but Deuce McAllister had 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns. Thomas Jones gained 1,210 yards for the Bears, but Chicago’s 3.8-yard average was 23rd in the league.

Passing offense

1. New Orleans; 2. Philadelphia; 3. Seattle; 4. Chicago

The Saints led the league in passing, Drew Brees (4,418 yards, 26 touchdowns) was an MVP candidate, Marques Colston shined as a rookie (70 catches, eight touchdowns) and Sean Payton was named coach of the year.

New Orleans causes problems because it can attack teams so many ways. Six players have at least 23 catches, and 10 players have at least 14 catches. Even without Joe Horn, who is questionable because of injury, Brees still has Colston and Reggie Bush at his disposal.

Garcia, who is 6-1 as a starter for the Eagles, struggled to get anything going in the wild-card win, but he doesn’t need to be great as long as Westbrook is carrying the load.

Grossman’s troubles have been well documented, but coach Lovie Smith reiterated this week he won’t yank him against Seattle. Grossman has had two weeks to think about the regular season finale, when he was 2-for-12 with three interceptions against Green Bay. Only Detroit’s Jon Kitna and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger had more interceptions than Grossman’s 20 this season.

Grossman was 17-for-41 for 192 yards in last year’s home playoff loss to Carolina.

“Carolina has zero to do with what we’re doing now,” Smith said. “That’s last year. We’re concentrating on getting back to the same form when we were having success this season.”

Rushing defense

1. Chicago; 2. Seattle; 3. Philadelphia; 4. New Orleans

In the playoffs, Smith said, “you start with defense and special teams and then go from there.” That’s especially true for the Bears, whose offense isn’t a shock-and-awe outfit but whose defense and special teams have excelled all season.

Chicago held opponents to less than 100 yards rushing in nine games. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have combined for 271 tackles. In the teams’ first meeting, Seattle managed only 77 rushing yards on 19 attempts.

“We have a lot to make up for because we didn’t play very well,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said of the 37-6 Bears win. “We’re going to the same place with the same fans, and we have to be better. The Bears are [13-3] for a reason, and their defense is certainly one of them.”

The Eagles were gashed for 137 yards by Tiki Barber and were the fifth-worst rush defense in the league during the regular season.

New Orleans’ run defense ranked 23rd. But they have been susceptible against the better backs. The Redskins’ Ladell Betts gained 119 yards on Dec. 17, and Washington physically handled the Saints’ front seven.

Passing defense

1. New Orleans; 2. Chicago; 3. Philadelphia; 4. Seattle

Philadelphia will be without Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard, who dislocated his elbow last week against the Giants, and Seattle beat Dallas without starters Kelly Herndon and Marcus Trufant.

Because of their opponent, the Eagles are in bigger trouble. Seattle will be able to make do because of Grossman’s expected struggles.

Without Sheppard, Rod Hood gets the start, but Philadelphia will have to put an inferior player on the field when New Orleans goes with four receivers. In a mid-October win over the Eagles, Brees was 27-for-37 for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

“It hurts because Lito’s had a great year,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. “But we have a lot of talent. Rod’s done a good job, and we’ll play Will James some. I think Rod’s up to the task.”

The Saints’ pass defense ranked third in the league this season even though it had only 11 interceptions. But it had 38 sacks.

Chicago’s Ricky Manning and Charles Tillman each had five interceptions, and four players had at least five sacks.

Special teams

1. Chicago; 2. Philadelphia; 3. New Orleans; 4. Seattle

The Bears finished the regular season tied for second in points scored, but that total was aided by nine return/defensive touchdowns.

Chicago was one of only three NFL teams to finish in the top 10 in kickoff and punt returns. Hester averages 12.8 yards on punt returns and 26.4 yards on kickoff returns.

Only the Saints’ Bush can come close to matching Hester’s skills — he has a 7.7-yard average and one touchdown on punt returns.

In the kicking game, Gould may be the All-Pro, but Philadelphia’s David Akers is tied for seventh in postseason history with 20 field goals and hit the game-winner to beat the Giants, and Seattle’s Josh Brown had four game-winning field goals in the final minute of regulation this season.

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