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Wednesday, November 22

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Bears in Five

By The Numbers
by Ramsin Canon and the Bearscast.com staff

One.
One, the unity of all knowledge, the all-knowing supreme. We gotta give the One to Devin Hester, who last night broke the record for return touchdowns in a season and clowned the St. Louis Rams. If the Bears would've beaten the Rams 42-27 by scoring a bunch of rushing touchdowns and a defensive touchdown or two, people would be saying, "The Bears looked good but the game was closer than it looks." But Hester's absolutely owning of the Rams made this game look like a blowout. It also made Rams Coach Scott Linehan's decision to actually kick to Hester while faking the on-side kick look straight moronic. You usually can't have a game plan built around scoring on special teams, but when you have a cat back there that can seemingly do it at will, it all starts to look possible. So throw up the One for Devin The Divine.

Two.
Two has got to go to our man Mark Anderson, or, as we call him, The Manderson. Two because ol' boy had two sacks on the night and looked unstoppable, making us almost forget the painful absence of the best defensive lineman in football, Tommie Harris. The Manderson brought the pressure just when it looked like the defensive front was getting tired, and that is what let the Bears pull away in the second half. Jerry Angelo is looking more and more like the greatest talent scout in the NFL this decade. Everybody slept on Manderson, but not JA. Or as we call him, Jah.

Three.
Three is the holy number, the trinity, and so we're gonna throw it out to our Holy Three — Brian Urlacher, the God; Lance Briggs, The FranchiseBot (formerly TackleBot); and Charles Tillman, who we don't call Peanut because this is a man you're addressing. Urlacher, Briggs and Tillman held it down, the linebackers leading the team in tackles and making some bruising hits and Tillman picking off a pass at just the right team. This defense has so much ferocity and speed that they are a true joy to watch and awe inspiring like the first time we walked into the Duomo in Milan and you understand where the phrase "Fear of God" comes from.

Four.
We've big-upped the defense and special teams. How about the O-side of the ball? Then we have to give it up for C-Bens and Tom Jones, for whom its not unusual to average mad yards per carry at any time. Jones had some beautiful runs and averaged just under 7 yards a carry, which is a sure way to win a game. Benson did the heavy lifting, carrying the ball 16 times for four yards a carry. Benson and Jones can't share a backfield because of the need for additional blocking (especially for Jones), but they can sure as hell get a fair number of carries. Each of these cats can carry the ball 15 to 20 times a game and get their 100 yards and be done with it. Lovie sees this now — there's no stopping the Knowledge.

Five.
Five is a beautiful number because no matter what you do to it, it keeps its character. Multiply that sucker by whatever you want, but you're either gonna get a number with a five in it, or 0 — nada. So Five goes out to our main man Rex Grossman, who the press has been hounding for weeks but who refused to be anything but what he was. He played his game yesterday and benefitted from a less-than-stellar Rams defensive backfield, but he also kept pushing the ball upfield and made some beautiful throws — I'm thinking right now about that delicious floater that Muhsin Muhammad pulled down for a score in the third quarter. He trusted Muhammad to get up and get that ball, but he also made sure that if Muhammad didn't get it, nobody else would. Grossman is going to be a premier quarterback in this league, and don't forget we've been dropping that knowledge since his rookie year.

Although the game was ugly in parts — particularly the first half — it all came together as soon as the Bears game plan fully developed, with the run established. Watching the Bears relax and cruise to a victory let me relax and just chill. Enjoy it, baby — everything is everything, and everything is good.

Pucks in Five

Streaking on the Ice
by Jeremy Piniak

This week sees one streak continue, though not as strongly as one would like, and a non-goal streak mercifully come to an end, though multitudes of problems remain. Combined with the return of the Hawks' offensive stalwart and a fantastic free agent pick-up, this week's Pucks in Five brings a bevy of Blackhawks news.

One: Not a Win Streak, but a Good Streak Nonetheless
The Hawks continued on their middling ways under new coach Denis Savard last week. While I'm not bemoaning the fact the team has earned 11 of a possible 14 points in seven games under Savoir Faire, after last week's 3-0 start, things slowed to a trickle, with two shootout losses and an overtime loss before Sunday's 4-1 win over Edmonton. The points earned in these losses help, but the Hawks are still getting outworked and not controlling the game enough to be a contender in the spring.

Losing on home ice to Phoenix is inexcusable, regardless of the point, and while the Blackhawks have to be happy picking up a pair of points in two games at the Wild this week, neither game dictated they were necessarily deserved. On Sunday, the Hawks put everything together to beat Edmonton, a division leader, albeit a weak one — exactly the kind of game the Hawks need to earn two points in if they want to move up in the standings. Still, a point in seven straight games is something to be commended, as it helps counteract the eight-game losing streak from a month ago and move the Blackhawks back into the thick of things, only four points out of the eighth conference seed.

Two: The Ayes Havlat
After missing 19 games, Hawks sniper Martin Havlat finally returned to the Blackhawks lineup Saturday night in Minnesota. Although missing seven weeks worth of playing time, Havlat was still tied for top goal-scorer upon his return, iron-clad proof of how much the team missed the talented winger. Havlat picked up where he left off before his ankle sprain, netting two goals in the overtime loss to the Wild and another at Sunday's home game against Edmonton on a spectacular breakaway backhand. Havlat also picked up a helper in each contest, giving him 18 points in only nine games this season. For a team that has struggled mightily on offense since Havlat went down, seeing him weaving his way through the defense and putting points on the board is a more than welcome sight. With teams knowing Havlat is a dangerous presence on the ice, he can help open up the ice for other struggling forwards as well.

Three: Perilous Power Play Lacks Punch
While the Hawks offense is sure to pick up with Havlat's return, even more crucial is the impact he will have on the powerplay. His second goal Saturday broke the team's 0-36 misery with the man advantage, and the entire unit looked rejuvenated with Marty back on the ice, though much of the time it looked like Havlat was the only one doing the work. Although the scoreless streak was finally broken, the struggles of the powerplay are a major concern. In Thursday's home loss to Phoenix, the team was unable to capitalize on any of their six powerplays against the league's second-worst penalty kill, including a two-man advantage to close out the third period.

Sunday against the league-leading kill of the Oilers, the team went 0-10, failing to convert on seven straight powerplays to open the game and two lengthy 5-on-3's, leaving the team 2-57 in their last 12 games. With Havlat back the team recovers one of their key powerplay personnel; the Hawks still have some major work to do to get the unit functioning, and could use some help.

Four: Bring on Bondra
Addressing the need for aid with the extra man, GM Dale Tallon announced Sunday the signing of NHL vet Peter Bondra. Bondra, a five-time All-Star in his 15 NHL seasons, is two goals shy of 500 for his career and has scored 20-plus goals in 14 straight seasons. Bondra most recently played with Atlanta last season, and his scoring ability and speed will be a shot in the arm to the ailing Hawks offense, where he can play either wing, and especially as a point man on the powerplay.

Bondra signed a one-year, $500,000 deal, a relative bargain for someone with his resume, though as a 38-year-old his endurance will be tested. He's not the serial scorer he was in his heyday, but his reputation as a speedy winger with good hands is a masterful marriage with the Blackhawks' major needs. For a team that is struggling to put together a solid offense outside of Havlat, the minutes Bondra can play — most likely on the second line — will help provide an alternate scoring punch. The upside potential and inexpensive cost make this a great signing by Tallon.

Five: Watching the Wings, on TV
In a rare move for Dollar Bill Wirtz, Thursday's home game against Detroit will be the second of five games to be broadcast on Comcast Sportsnet. For a franchise that has long eschewed televising home games for fear of losing draw at the gate, even this little step is momentous, especially considering the pathetic attendance figures for most of the season. Hawks-Wings games are always an entertaining and fierce rivalry, and the attendance will surge with a number of Detroit fans making the trip down, so it's an absolute necessity the Hawks don't have a hostile crowd on their home ice. So I'm imploring anyone who's been curious to see what the Hawks are about this year to come to the United Center Thursday night. Tickets start at $10, and a student ID gets $15 tickets at half price (and believe me, they rarely check IDs). Live hockey can make a fan out of anyone.

Bulls in Five

Endings & Beginnings
by Jason Maslanka

One: Streaks Do End
In sports, all streaks end (except for Brett Favre's consecutive starts streak, apparently). The Bulls hadn't lost since November 24th, encompassing seven games, but that ended Saturday at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Kevin Garnett. Garnett has been coveted as the superstar many Bulls fans wanted to lead this team, but no trades materialized for Garnett and his giant contract during the recent offseason. Garnett didn't disappoint, however, scoring 18 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists in leading the Wolves to the 10-point win.

Two: And They Start Again
The optimistic fan looks at every loss as an opportunity to start a new streak. The realistic fan looks at every loss as a misstep in a long season. The consortium of hardcore fans and math majors look at every loss as a half game drop in the standings. Truthfully, they're all correct, but in the case of the Bulls' 106-91 win over the Pacers Monday night, it looks most like a chance to start a new streak. The week features games against the Sonics, Bucks and Hawks, none of which are over .500 or likely to be at the end of the year. Remember, winning seven in a row isn't nearly as important as winning two of every three. That's the mark of a consistently terrific title contender.

Threeeeee: Roster Surprises
Michael Sweetney gets playing time outside of garbage time. Adrian Griffin barely plays. Viktor Khryapa doesn't even appear to be a member of the team. These are some of the early season surprises in terms of playing time and roles. Sweetney has been given opportunities in situations to showcase his low-post game. While perpetually inconsistent, Sweetney has shown flashes of quality play. As the only true low-post presence on the team, those flashes need to sustain. The opposite is true, however, for Griffin and Khryapa. Griffin was a big part of the Western Conference Champion Dallas Mavericks, and tends to do the little things well. Khryapa was brought in to fill the Darius Songaila role but has done no such thing. The excitement of Tyrus Thomas and solid play of the forwards in general has relegated Khryapa to end of bench status. In Scott Skiles' world, though, don't ever be surprised when one of them is a starter by mid-season.

Four: All-Star Gala
Five Bulls are on this year's NBA All-Star Ballot. Hinrich, Gordon, Deng, Nocioni and Wallace are all on the paper and online ballot. Wallace is most likely the only Bull with a real shot at the game due to his name recognition, but Deng is probably the most deserving. His 18 points and seven rebounds per game have established Luol as a premier young forward. Even if no Bulls are selected for the team, look for both Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha to make the freshman squad for the Rookie-Sophomore game. Hinrich and Nocioni are both shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc, but it seems unlikely that either would be invited to the three-point shootout. Fans can vote for All-Star selections via bulls.com.

Five: Poison Chicago
A multitude of Indiana Pacers' players sat out Monday's game at the United Center due to food poisoning. The players don't seem to be exactly sure where the sickness came from, but they did eat at an unidentified tavern across the street from their hotel. If anyone knows where the Pacers stay when in town, we can find the bar in question. Once we find out if the cook loves the Bulls, we should be able to thank him for the easy win.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon, Craig Aichele and Fitz are the hosts of Bearscast.com, the best and brightest Bears podcasts, part of the Chicago Sportscast Network. Now with 60 percent more non-football talk, bringing the football talk to 10 percent. Go listen. Send comments to hosts@bearscast.com.

Jeremy Piniak grew up watching hockey on all levels and is a lifelong Blackhawks fan who, inexplicably, still has hope that Bill Wirtz will once again provide Chicago with a championship hockey team and broadcast home games on TV, though he still mourns the destruction of Chicago Stadium. Every week he'll bring you five talking points on the state of hockey in Chicago (including, when possible, the minor-league Wolves and Hounds). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

Jason Maslanka began his fandom of the Chicago Bulls in June of 1991, conveniently coinciding with the franchise's first championship. The years since the championships tested his fandom, but it never faltered. He believes that the NBA is more than dunks and hip hop, and that the NBA dress code is a good thing. He thinks most fans don't really understand basketball, and if they did, they'd love it even more. He knows that there are certain players who do the little things for no praise, and stat-mongers who don't really do anything to help their team win. Every week, he executes a beautifully crafted column containing five points you should be thinking about and discussing as a Bulls and NBA fan. Send comments, questions and arguments to bulls@gapersblock.com.

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