The playoffs define everything in the NFL, as they should. And the Giants, head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning are getting their due credit after upsetting the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
But let's not forget how fine the line is between success and failure in the postseason. The Packers barely made it into the postseason last year before winning the Super Bowl. The Giants only made it this season by winning a crappy division on the final day of the season.
There's no doubt the Giants have accomplished more in Tom Coughlin's eight seasons than the Bears have in Lovie Smith's eight seasons. The Giants have been to the playoffs five times. They won their Super Bowl and beat one of the best teams in NFL history to do it. The Bears have been to the playoffs three times. They lost their Super Bowl.
But this isn't the season that illustrates how much more competent the Giants are than the Bears. The biggest difference between the Bears and Giants in 2011 is that the Giants kept their quarterback healthy.
When Jay Cutler suffered a season-ending broken thumb against the Chargers on Nov. 20, the Bears were 7-3 with a five-game winning streak and legitimate contenders in the NFC. Their defense was 14th in the NFL despite playing eight of their 10 games against teams ranked in the top-10 in the NFL in scoring. Their beleaguered offense had been averaging 26.6 points a game in the winning streak. And the easiest part of their schedule was coming up.
At the same time that Cutler's season was ending, the Giants were 6-4 after losing at home to a Philadelphia Eagles team without Michael Vick that the Bears had beaten on the road with Vick two weeks earlier.
The Bears are maddeningly dysfunctional. They are teetering on the brink of a precipitous fall if Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers suddenly show their age. But their dysfunction played only a small part in their demise this season. The four conference finalists have one thing in common that can't be ignored: Their quarterback hasn't missed a game this season. That seems to make a big difference.
It did for the Bears. And the Giants. And while Tom Coughlin has been a better coach than Lovie Smith and Ernie Accorsi/Jerry Reese have been better talent evaluators than Jerry Angelo, I would argue that the difference between the Bears and Giants in the Lovie-Coughlin era is small enough that one factor has separated the two: the Giants got the quarterback right. The Bears did not.
When Angelo had the No. 4 pick in the 2003 draft, he traded down to take Rex Grossman at No. 22. When Accorsi had the No. 4 pick in the draft in 2004, he traded up to take Eli Manning at No. 1. Without that single move, are the Giants still better than the Bears over the past eight seasons? I severely doubt it.
(And you can't ignore the role of luck, either. If Accorsi hadn't traded up for Manning, he still would have wound up with Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger. Angelo theoretically could have traded up to No. 1 in 2003 and taken Carson Palmer. But had he stayed at No. 4, the best he could have had was Byron Leftwich or Kyle Boller.)
A year ago when the Bears lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game it was clear the disparity between the teams was only widening -- and it turned out to be true in 2011. But the current difference between the Bears and Giants is nothing to lament during the offseason. It can turn the other way in an instant.