Windy City just waiting for Da Bears to blow it

CHICAGO -- At least, I think this is Chicago.

Same striking skyline, same dark skies and chilly weather. Something's missing, though, almost as if somebody drained Lake Michigan. There's no maniacal, delusional hysteria for the Bears.

Not even a 13-3 record, with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, is enough to crank up the usual unrealistic expectations. It's hard to explain, just a feeling from someone who lived here for six years at a time everyone from the mayor to nuns over-hyped the Bears.

I went to my old South Side barbershop, the Hyde Park Hair Salon, looking for confirmation and explanation.

"It's probably the quarterback, him being wishy-washy," said Abdul Karim Shakir. "And I don't think people have any confidence in the backup."

As a result, there isn't the same anticipation.

"It would be a whole atmosphere," Shakir said. "It's not there anymore."

Yes, having Rex Grossman at QB (with Brian Griese as Plan B) has cooled off the fan base like a frigid blast of wind.

"It's not [the same]," said Maurice McClain, another barber. "This guy here's just been so terrible at times."

There's no dissension from the customers, who hang their Bears and White Sox caps before sitting in the chairs. The barbershop has been there for more than 80 years, and has been an African American social spot since the 1960s. Muhammad Ali used to get his hair cut there; it's been Sen. Barack Obama's spot for 20 years.

The regulars remember what happened the last time the Bears went 13-3, in 2001, when Chicago homeboy Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles came into Soldier Field and ended the Bears' season. They remember last year, when the Carolina Panthers came to Chicago and won.

That loss came with Kyle Orton taking the snaps. Grossman took over this season, and his solid performance through the first five games, combined with the usual fearsome defense, raised expectations so high the Chicago Sun-Times started including a Bears helmet and palm trees (for South Florida) in its front-page logo.

Then Grossman began a run of games in which 14 of his passes were intercepted while he threw for eight touchdowns, bottoming out with a quarterback rating of 1.3 against Minnesota in Week 13.

Now his head is the most analyzed in sports, as everyone wonders if he can regain his confidence. Sometimes, as when he admitted he was distracted by New Year's Eve plans before the final regular-season game, people just wonder, what the heck is he thinking?

These playoffs have been a big test lab for the value of quarterbacks. If it's unusually hazardous to pick a Super Bowl winner, it's because there's so much uncertainty at the critical position. Neither the Bears nor the team with the best record in the AFC, the San Diego Chargers, are considered locks for Miami because both have quarterbacks making their first postseason starts.

There are doubts everywhere you look. Even Peyton Manning must overcome his reputation for coming up short in the playoffs. Would you really like his chances if he had to go through Bill Belichick and the Patriots again to get to the Super Bowl?

Grossman's counterpart today, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, has his own issues. He's coming off a so-so start against the Cowboys last week -- two touchdowns and two interceptions -- getting a second chance in large part because Tony Romo couldn't handle the snap on a field-goal attempt. (Even when they're holding on kicks, it's still about the quarterbacks.)

One of Hasselbeck's worst games came here at Soldier Field in Week 4, when he had two interceptions, no touchdowns and a 39.7 rating as the Bears won, 37-6.

Some notable changes since then: Seattle running back Shaun Alexander has recovered from a broken bone in his foot and Chicago has lost defensive back Mike Brown and defensive lineman Tommie Harris to injuries.

As inconsistent as Hasselbeck has been this season, at least he was good enough to take the Seahawks to the Super Bowl and earn himself a trip to the Pro Bowl last season. Grossman has no postseason history.

This year's Bears story could come to a close if Grossman can't produce and the defense can't stop a slide that has seen the last six opponents rack up at least 300 yards, after no one reached that threshold in the first 10 games.

If the Bears do finish, for a change, it won't bring life in Chicago to a halt. Even with a playoff game on tap, amazingly, Chicagoans have other things on their mind.

"What I want to know," Shakir said, "is what the Bulls are going to do about getting an inside scorer."

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandblog

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