Improved Bears await rematch

Seattle won’t find Chicago in disarray

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – It’s not a stretch to say the Chicago Bears have made some big strides since they last played the Seattle Seahawks.

They were reeling then.

It was hard to envision the Bears making the postseason after Seattle beat them at Soldier Field on Oct. 17, yet they’re in the playoffs for the first time in four years after winning the NFC North and earning a first-round bye.

Now, Chicago is staring at the Seahawks again. Seattle shocked defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans last weekend, an upset few saw coming from a team that slipped in by winning the NFC West with a 7-9 record.

By knocking off Drew Brees and the Saints, Seattle opened more than a few eyes. Then again, it already had the Bears’ attention.

“It got our attention the first time we played them this year,” Chicago’s Devin Hester said. “We know that they’re a great team. That game doesn’t surprise me at all. We saw what happened when we faced them. So we know we can’t have the same mistakes we had earlier in the season.”

The Seahawks are returning to the site of their most impressive performance in the regular season, a 23-20 victory.

For Chicago, the ugly loss was the second in a 1-3 skid that just about destroyed the season.

Jay Cutler returned from a concussion and got pounded again while completing just 17 of 39 passes for 290 yards. He was sacked six times after being sacked nine times in the first half against the New York Giants in his previous game two weeks earlier.

The Bears continued to ignore the running game, rushing for 61 yards on 14 attempts. With no balance on offense, they didn’t convert a third down, going 0 for 12, and the defense couldn’t bail them out.

It didn’t help that linebacker Lance Briggs missed the game with an injured left ankle, but even so, it was a rare off day for a unit that ranked among the league’s stingiest.

Julius Peppers had just three tackles and no quarterback pressures. Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck had his way, throwing for 242 yards and a touchdown.

“We didn’t play well that game,” Peppers said. “We played OK. We didn’t play up to our standards. That’s something we’re going to take a look at.”

When they lost another home game the following week to struggling Washington, it was hard to imagine the turnaround the Bears orchestrated, but the team that emerged after a week off hardly resembled the one that stumbled into its break.

There were big changes, particularly on offense. There were big results, too – seven wins in eight games before a loss at Green Bay to close the regular season.

They committed to the run, settled on a rotation on the offensive line and it all helped take the load off Cutler. The Bears were one of the most balanced teams over the final nine games, with 258 rushing attempts and 276 pass plays (including sacks).

“We had a chance to really look at, evaluate what we had done,” coach Lovie Smith said. “I think everyone expects you to be playoff-ready right away. We weren’t. We needed a little bit of time to grow and see exactly what they would be. As far as change, I think we kind of figured out a little bit what direction we wanted to go.”

What they are is a team that ultimately adapted – particularly on offense. “We’re a better team, no doubt, but they are too, no doubt,” Smith said. “And both teams should be this time of the year.”

Injury update

Seattle coach Pete Carroll says he’s hopeful linebacker Lofa Tatupu and wide receiver Ben Obomanu will be able to practice by the end of the week after suffering injuries against New Orleans.

Carroll said Monday that Tatupu has responded well after suffering a concussion in the fourth quarter, but he still has to be cleared under the league-mandated concussion testing. Carroll said the team was pleased with Tatupu’s condition two days after the injury.

Obomanu played most of the game after dislocating his right shoulder in the first quarter. Carroll said he thinks Obomanu should be able to practice this week. He finished with five catches for 43 yards.

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