The reality of life in the NFL is that every game, every Sunday is the most important game of the season and the most important game of your career.
NFL players’ careers are averaging about 3.4 years these days. Convert that to games and it’s 55 games to last a lifetime. Fail to get the most out of any game and you’ve cheated yourself and shortened your career.
As Bears defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker said the other day,“We feel like we need to play better and that’s our emphasis, to get better. We’re never going to be satisfied. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. It’s a cliche but it’s true.”
Still, some games feel bigger than others, and for Marc Trestman’s Bears, this Sunday’s tussle with the Saints feels like one of those games.
As the Trestman era begins to take shape, there will be four different stages to pass through. Even though Trestman inherited a 10-win team, he was brought in to completely revamp the offense and change the culture. The first stage is just to be competitive.
The Bears appear to be there already.
The second stage is to be a legitimate playoff contender, a team that can win at least nine, hopefully 10 or 11 games and play tough with other playoff teams. The Bears may be there as well.
Stage three is to be a playoff team that can win playoff games. Be good enough not just to get there, but to win when you do.
Stage four is to be ready to compete for a Super Bowl.
The reason Sunday’s game is so significant is the Saints appear to be at stage four. There are barely a half dozen players left on the roster with rings from the 2009 Super Bowl club. But most of the coaching staff and Drew Brees were there, and this group seems as explosive on offense and even better on defense.
This is a chance to see how the 2013 Bears stack up.
We now know that the Bears beat two of the league’s weaker teams in Pittsburgh and Minnesota, and the Bengals at the moment are a notch above mediocre.
The Lions team that throttled the Bears pretty good is a playoff contender, but we have no idea if they ready to win games in the postseason.
Playing the Saints tough and losing proves nothing. But a win over New Orleans on Sunday would propel the Bears into the pool of legitimate 2013 playoff teams.
There are of course a dozen different matchups by which the Bears can gain or lose an edge over the Saints but there are two that appear to be absolutely critical, not only to beating the Saints but to becoming a legitimate playoff team.
The Bears must find a way to pressure Brees without having to blitz. If they cannot force Brees off his spot while allowing at least six and preferably seven defenders to stay back and try and cover Brees’ multiple weapons, he will pick the Bears apart as would most solid playoff QB’s.
Julius Peppers will be fine but Stephen Paea has batled turf toe all week and may not even play. Will Corey Wotton and Shea McClellin show up? They have to beat the Saints and they have to take the Bears seriously as a playoff team.
Jay Cutler must protect the ball. The Saints can go the length of the field for six against any team as well as any team in the league. Allowing them to play on a short field by giving them the football is a death wish, Sunday and certainly in the playoffs.
If it turns out the Bears are not there yet there will still be a great deal to watch analyze and enjoy as they build to get there.
But if they handle the Saints we’ll know for sure the Trestman plan is well ahead of schedule. This is a very bug game.