While the NFL playoffs haven't officially started, for all intents and purposes, the Bears and New Orleans Saints will be playing their second consecutive playoff game at Soldier Field tonight. Neither team can afford to lose another game this year if they're to have any realistic hope of making the playoffs this year -- though the impending suspensions of Minnesota's Williams Wall and injury to Gus Frerotte give the Bears more hope -- and the fact is that whichever team loses tonight can probably start planning for 2009.
The question is: Which team will that be?
The Bears and Lovie Smith would have you believe that all the advantages are in the Bears favor tonight. After all, tonight's weather forecast calls for a temperature of 26 degrees with winds gusting between 10 and 15 miles per hour. This is what Lovie Smith would call Bear Weather. He'd also have you believe that Bear Weather is a good thing for the Bears as opposed to what it must be like for the New Orleans Saints, who play their home games inside the Superdome in temperate New Orleans. One can only wonder what Lovie thinks of the fact that it's currently snowing in New Orleans right now.
The other advantage that Lovie would like to think belongs to the Bears is the pile of mud with blades of grass sprayed on it known as the playing surface of Soldier Field. Without looking too closely at the turf, one would assume that it has to be an advantage for the Bears, who have an offense that relies on Matt Forte and the ground game more than an aerial attack. The Saints are the exact opposite, as Drew Brees leads the NFL in passing yards, and the Saints have picked apart secondarys all season.
What few people seem to bring up is that a muddy field can actually be a bonus for a passing offense, as long as the winds don't get too bad. After all, only the wide receiver knows which route he's running as he runs it. It's easier for him to make his cuts since he knows they're coming than it is for the cornerback or safety assigned to covering him. Don't be surprised if you see Charles Tillman slipping and falling tonight a lot more than you see Reggie Bush doing it.
Now none of this is to say that the Bears are going to lose to the Saints tonight. New Orleans is a horrible road team. In seven games at home in the Superdome the Saints have gone 6-1 and average 36 points a game. Outside the bayou, New Orleans is 1-5 -- with their sole road win coming against lowly Kansas City -- and they average only 17 points a game. Respectable, but still way below their production at home.
What this game will boil down to is essentially what every NFL game comes down to in December. The team whose defense is able to get off the field when they need to, and the offense that can limit turnovers and mistakes is going to come out on top. Those two factors alone will have a lot more to do with tonight's outcome than weather and turf ever will.