The Chicago Bears couldn't handle the red-hot Green Bay Packers in the NFC
Championship game and now they'll be among the other 30 teams to watch the Super Bowl from home.
So, what's next for this almost-championship club? Here's a few off-season priorities facing the Bears.
1. Re-sign Lovie Smith: The stoic leader has earned his way to a contract extension. While few expected this team to even post a winning record, Smith accepted the challenge handed down by Ted Phillips and the Halas organization: playoffs or bust. Lovie went one better, closing out the year as a No. 2 seed and bringing the championship game to Chicago. He may never be loved like Ditka, but the coach got results when he needed to and his winning percentage as the Bears coach can't be ignored.
2. Re-tool the offensive line: Sure line coach Mike Tice did a fine job cobbling together a patch-work of has-beens, never-should-have-beens and almost-weren'ts into a semi-cohesive unit good enough to make a run at the Super Bowl. But let's not allow rose-colored glasses to cloud the picture. The Bears need a solid answer at left tackle, a capable replacement for aging Olin Kreutz and a fresh influx of backup talent. Hopefully Jerry Angelo can identify some talent down the board in the first round.
3. Corner the Market on DBs: Charles Tillman isn't getting any younger and Zackary Bowman isn't getting any better. Angelo and co. would do well to target some big bodied DBs who can cover the likes of Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson and Roddy White. If not, they might just get burned.
4. Keep the Bromance alive: The Bears should do everything in their power to make sure Mike Martz spends another year (or two) with developing QB Jay Cutler. The mad scientist's influence was obvious this year in stoking Cutlers development into a more-sane passer who didn't sling it into triple-coverage on every play. Cutler needs the stability of a second year with Martz in order to grow. Otherwise he'll be looking at his fourth system in four years, which is a recipe for a failed quarterback experiment.
5. Break it off on D: Time to unload guys like Tommie Harris, who takes the team on a yearly tour of behavior and performance issues. See what you can get for him in return, but jettison him. Say later to Desmond Clark if you're not going to play him. Same for Devin Aromashodu and Todd Collins.
6. Get a big reciever: Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett are great and all, but they're not going up to get any jump balls. Get Cutler some help so he can toss it up there every once in a while.
At least now the Bears' pro bowl players won't have to skip.