THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Shaping up as a bear of a game

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 12, 2010

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CHICAGO — I venture a guess you were just like me. You took a look at the 2010 Patriots schedule, which looked very formidable. But on the subject of the Dec. 12 game at Soldier Field, you said, “Well, there’s one game we won’t have to worry about.’’

Therein lies the beauty of the National Football League. For whatever reason(s), teams rise and fall in the standings with amazing regularity. Last year’s 3-13 disaster is this year’s 13-3 darling. And vice-versa. (The Belichick Patriots are a pleasant exception to the rule.)

The Chicago Bears have not quite taken it to that extreme. But they are a turnaround team, no matter how you slice it. They were 7-9 last year, finishing third in the NFC North while again missing the playoffs. Remember Super Bowl XLI, back in 2007, the one in which Peyton Manning finally earned his ring? The vanquished foe was, yup, the Chicago Bears.

It should be a very interesting late afternoon/early evening down by the lake. The game will be played in what they love to refer to around here as “Bear Weather.’’ How does snow showers, wind, and a low around 3 degrees sound? The playoff-bound Bears, who sit atop the NFC North at 9-3, and who have won five straight, love that stuff.

Unfortunately for them, however, they’re not playing the Chargers or Dolphins or one of those pampered dome teams. Nope, they’re playing the New England Patriots — specifically, the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady New England Patriots — and for them, December is a very pleasant month, no matter where the games are played.

Since Brady became The Man at QB in 2001, the Patriots are 34-5 in the 12th month. We must, of course, reserve a little shout-out for Matt Cassel, who was 4-0 in December 2008 as Brady was making his way back from knee surgery.

The 2010 Patriots are fast becoming one of my all-time favorite editions (although Brandon Spikes is not high on my list). Though an occasional e-mailer insists he or she was prescient enough to project them into a 12-4 kind of squad before the season began, the rest of us lacked their praiseworthy clairvoyance. We looked at the defense, the running game, and, in my case anyway, the forbidding schedule and thought 9-7 was likely, 10-6 would be laudable, and 8-8 (or worse) was conceivable.

I admit it: I was completely intimidated by the schedule. I saw the Jets, Ravens, Packers, Vikings, and Colts at home, and I figured there could be two losses there, easy. I saw an L at Joisey, an L at San Diego, and an L at Pittsburgh (pretty much a mortal lock L).

There were just so many issues surrounding the Patriots that it was impossible for me to have any faith in the team’s ability to negotiate such a daunting schedule with anything more than 10 wins.

But here they are, 10-2 and in total control of their destiny. Run the table and they will be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Win three out of four and they will be in very good shape. The object is to be the ones lounging in front of the big screens watching some pretty good teams fight for their playoff lives during Wild-Card Weekend, while you get to spend the first month of the new year playing at home.

Goodness, golly, gracious. How in the name of Babe Parilli did all this happen?

You start with the coach, of course. You’d think after all this time we would know better than to underestimate Coach Bill. Perhaps the answer is that even coaches have some years in which they are simply better at their job than in others. There might be something personal going on. He might not feel well. The staff might not be the right fit. I don’t know; I’m just throwing it out there.

Just because the man acts like a robot in the immediate aftermath of an NFL game (“We were good in all three phases of the game . . . zzzzz’’), that doesn’t mean he really is one.

But holy jumping Holovak, the guy has been off the charts this year. Coach of the Year? You kidding me? Coaching Job Of The Generation is more like it. He gives his team such an edge in most situations it’s almost unfair.

Next up, we have the quarterback. We all hoped, and perhaps even assumed, that he would be better this season than he was in 2009, the first year back after sustaining a major knee injury. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he threw for 4,398 yards last season, but we all knew he wasn’t the real Tom Brady, and I know I was at least mildly afraid we’d never see that guy again.

So much for that worry. During the past four weeks, Tom Brady has been the best quarterback in the league, and during the last two games he has been channeling the sainted Joe Montana, the QB who most approximated Brady’s astonishing ability to pick apart teams with short- and medium-route completions.

No one has ever suggested that either Montana or Brady was in possession of the world’s strongest arm. It’s nice if you have it, but you can have it and have the savvy and leadership qualities of a Jeff George and thus be a colossal tease.

Patriots fans have taken almost parental pride in watching the youth-oriented defense mature, but let there be no doubt that the defensive MVP is Vince Wilfork, who has moved seamlessly along the line all season.

There remain legitimate concerns as to whether this is a Super Bowl-caliber defense, but it’s the one they have, and with its combination of raw skill and knack for making the big play when it absolutely, positively must be made it is endearing in its vulnerability. Hey, you can’t get greedy. You have the best coach and a Hall of Fame QB at the top of his game. You want the ’85 Bears defense, too?

Coach Bill has laid it on, big-time, on the subject of the Bears, and how tough a game this is going to be.

On defense: “Pretty much any way you want to measure them statistically is real good. Points, third down, red area, pressure, forced fumbles.’’

On offense: “I’m extremely impressed with Jay Cutler. I think he’s playing as well as any quarterback we’ve seen, and we’ve seen some good ones. He’s accurate, makes good reads, quick decisions, makes plays with his feet, both running for yardage and keeping plays alive, scrambling.’’

It’s all valid. The Bears are 9-3 on merit. It may have looked like a gimme game in August, but you Catholics had better keep the rosary beads handy while watching this one. The rest of you are on your own.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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