On the last day of the NFL regular season, the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens lost for the fourth time in five games, and nothing about finishing 10-6 fueled their playoff drive with momentum.
On the same day, the Bears won their second straight game to end 2012 with the same record.
The Bears fired their coach. The Ravens will immortalize theirs after proving for the third straight season that it pays to have the hottest team in the NFL postseason instead of the deepest roster. The 2011 Giants went 9-7 before their triumphant playoff run. A year earlier, the Packers won it all despite going 10-6. All three teams illustrated what happens when head coaches maximize talent with intelligent game plans and players galvanize behind a common cause.
After the Ravens recovered to look so strong following a weak December, naturally it makes one ponder what the Bears might have done if the Packers hadn't lost to the Vikings in Week 17 to eliminate their NFC North rival. The divisional playoff weekend suggested a significant gap between the Bears offense and others in the NFC, but consider the Ravens only scored 11 more points than the Bears over the final seven games. Yet they regrouped.
Chicagoans reflexively scoff at such comparisons to the Ravens, but the teams bear similarities impossible to ignore as Baltimore prepares for its ticker-tape parade Tuesday. Both dominant defenses derive inspiration from thirtysomething middle linebackers at the end of their careers. Both inconsistent offenses feature Pro Bowl-caliber, big-play wide receivers, versatile running backs and quarterbacks of immense talent with something to prove. Both special teams units contain game-changing capability. Both offensive lines represent the weakest links and scrambled for consistency by moving players around until finding the right combination.
Though deeper and more skilled along the offensive line than the Bears, keep in mind the Ravens started the Super Bowl with only center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda in the same spots in which they began the season. Before the wild-card playoff opener, the Ravens moved rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele to left guard, switched left tackle Michael Oher to the right side and inserted veteran Bryant McKinnie to protect Joe Flacco's blind side. Anything about that say stability?
Yet they persevered, as much as anything, due to Flacco's poise. The biggest difference between the Bears and the Ravens stands behind center. A Super Bowl ring says Flacco has arrived while Cutler, mysteriously, still is on the way despite being 21 months older. Ask 10 NFL scouts to evaluate Cutler and Flacco based on physical ability and expect a majority of them to give a slight edge in athleticism to the Bears quarterback. Both excel at throwing deep thanks to an abundance of what coaches call "arm talent.'' Flacco separates himself from Cutler from the shoulders up. He benefits from a better receiving corps than Cutler's, but nothing fazes the guy who in five seasons already has as many postseason wins (nine) as Peyton Manning.
Coach Marc Trestman should use Flacco as the model to show Cutler the value of precision, discipline and focus. General manager Phil Emery should let Flacco's example guide the Bears in their contract discussions with Cutler. If Flacco can respond to a contract year with a clutch season, he should see if Cutler also can before opening up the vault.
It also will be telling to see if the late-season impact of Ray Lewis' leadership on the Ravens affects Brian Urlacher's status with the Bears. Lewis might have been the Ravens' worst defensive starter against the 49ers, but, to a man, teammates believed they played better with him in the huddle — so they did. In a copycat league, will the Bears and other teams consider how the intangibles of Urlacher, a free agent who turns 35 in May, could offset the decline in his performance? As tempted as Emery might be to get sentimental, he needs to let the tape decide without allowing the past to dictate the Bears' future.
Same goes for Emery's approach with diva Devin Hester, who told the Tribune he wants a "fresh start'' and hinted at relationship issues with Cutler. Indeed, Devin Hester, you really are ridiculous if you think whining publicly enhances your trade value. Ignore Hester's flaky demands, retire Hester as a wide receiver and bring in somebody to compete with him as the team's primary punt and kickoff returner. In that role exclusively, perhaps Hester, if pushed, can recapture that magic once he stops sulking.
As Jacoby Jones reminded America during his 108-yard return Sunday night, every Super Bowl contender needs a legitimate return threat. As the Ravens reinforced, even flawed 10-6 teams have every reason to think Super Bowl.