By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Rivalries in professional football don’t matter anymore.
Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo can make all the noise they want about beating the archrival Packers this week and it is nothing more than gum flapping. The Bears are playing out the string and the results of the final two games won’t matter a bit, barring a minor miracle.
If the Bears find a way to compete against the Packers and stay within a couple of touchdowns, it will probably be one of their better efforts. Winning? Forget about it. The Packers are coming off their first loss and there’s no way Mike McCarthy is going to put up with a second straight poor effort. The other factor is Josh McCown, who really hasn’t seen any significant action since 2007.
Would it even matter if the Bears somehow came out on top in this Christmas night game and the Packers went on to repeat as Super Bowl champions? Try using that to keep yourself warm this winter. It would be very cold comfort.
While apologists can point to Jay Cutler’s injury as the reason for the downturn to the season, the Bears have a myriad of problems that will impact the future and they must be addressed quickly or a major slump will result in future seasons. The arrow is pointing down for the Bears. If they take off the rose-colored glasses and address issues that include a less-than-consistent offensive line, a weak wide receiver crew, an incompetent backup quarterback and an aging defense, they will fall further behind Green Bay and Detroit in the division and will slip to the bottom of the NFC.
Cutler will recover from his broken thumb and should regain his position as a top-5 quarterback in the league. A healthy quarterback with a powerful arm can solve a lot of woes and may result in a few extra victories. But the foundation of this house is getting weaker and the Bears must address those weaknesses in the offseason.
At the United Center, the arrow is pointing upward for the Blackhawks. The team that won the Stanley Cup two years ago but then barely made the playoffs last year appears to be on track for a long playoff run this spring. The Blackhawks have the combination of offensive skill, defensive tenacity and coaching ingenuity to make a new set of memories.
Start with Jonathan Toews, one of the most unique superstars in the NHL. Toews sets the tone with his burning intensity and leadership, combined with his ability to outfight defensemen when he heads toward the net. He’s already reached the 20-goal mark and will approach 50 if he can keep up this pace. Much of it is the ability to operate in the small spaces close to the net when opponents are trying hammer him and keep him from gaining that prime real estate.
His performance in the faceoff circle has been amazing. Toews is the top faceoff man in the league, ranking ahead of all centers including Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra and Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, according to NHL.com. Winning faceoffs gives the Hawks possession of the puck and a chance to make plays instead of chasing down the puck and trying to regain possession.
Toews is the leader, but when you have supporting stars like Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane on offense and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on defense, you have a core of players that can take you a long way. Add in Joel Quenneville and you may have the best coach in the league.
There’s no doubt who’s in charge when Quenneville walks in the room, and he excels at finding the best matchups for his top players. Maybe Mike Babcock in Detroit is his equal in that area, and perhaps Boston’s Claude Julien. No other coaches belong in that category, especially Vancouver’s priggish Alain Vigneault.
When you look at the competition in the Western Conference, the Red Wings are aging, the Canucks are soft and the Wild are making a nice first-half effort, but they really don’t belong.
It is all out there for the Blackhawks to dominate and make another run to the Stanley Cup Finals if they can overcome their big question mark in the net. Corey Crawford had a first star effort in Wednesday night’s 5-1 win over Montreal that should give the Hawks a little more piece of mind after struggling through much of the first half. Ray Emery has exceeded expectations and looks like an excellent backup, but there’s no real reason to believe he could be successful in the playoffs.
If Crawford can straighten himself out and regain his confidence, the Blackhawks have as good a chance as anyone to make a long run in the playoffs. There is clearly a long way to go and several ups and downs, but it’s looking like an original six Stanley Cup Finals between Chicago and Boston is a distinct possibility.
Those are realistic dreams when an organization takes care of business and the arrow is pointing up.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.