Without question the selection of Bears cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings to start the Pro Bowl reflects how highly the rest of the league regards the tandem.
Not since 1988, when the Browns duo of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield earned starting honors for the AFC, have one team's starting cornerbacks been similarly honored.
An official show of respect to Tillman and Jennings comes about four weeks too late for the Bears.
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If the officiating crew in the Seahawks game Dec. 2 at Soldier Field had respected Tillman and Jennings more obviously while making two key judgment calls during a 23-17 overtime loss, the Bears might enter Week 17 under very different circumstances. The Tribune has learned the league later acknowledged to the Bears via its weekly feedback on questionable calls that the crew failed to call offensive pass-interference penalties on two receptions in front of the Pro Bowl cornerbacks that preceded Seahawks touchdowns.
The first came on third-and-6 from the Seahawks 47 with 3 minutes, 10 seconds left in the first half. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a deep sideline pass to wide receiver Golden Tate. Tate subtly shoved Jennings to the ground with his right hand near the Bears 30 and came down with what he turned into a 49-yard reception. The Seahawks scored a touchdown on the next play from the 4.
The call was one of seven the Bears formally questioned in their weekly correspondence with the NFL officiating department. In a response from the NFL obtained by the Tribune, the league agreed with the Bears' postgame interpretation of all seven calls after its videotape review.
By design, the open dialogue teams routinely maintain with the NFL about officials' decision-making can result in admissions of mistakes. After the Bears' 17-14 loss to the Redskins in October 2010, for example, a team source told the Tribune the league admitted missing a personal foul on the Redskins that would have nullified DeAngelo Hall's 92-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Bears made that moot by eventually winning NFC home-field advantage.
On the explanation of Tate's offensive pass interference against Jennings, the league stated simply: "Agree. OPI on #81 for creating separation with his arm.''
The disputed no-call against Tillman came in overtime. With the Seahawks facing a critical third-and-10 from the Bears 25, Wilson rolled left to escape the rush and found wide receiver Daniel Baldwin for a 12-yard completion. To separate, Baldwin rammed his shoulder into Tillman after he opened his hips. The collision knocked Tillman to the ground. On Fox's telecast, analyst Tim Ryan remarked, "Baldwin got away with a little bump.''
Regarding Baldwin's no-call the Bears questioned in their report, the league wrote: "Agree. OPI on #89 for blocking to create separation.''
Sidney Rice caught a 13-yard touchdown pass on the next play to end a game that sent both teams in opposite directions.
Perhaps we are unaware of the Bears benefiting from bad calls in narrow victories over the Lions or Panthers the way the Seahawks did against them. Nobody can say with certainty the blown calls cost the Bears the Seahawks game or potentially a playoff spot if they lose Sunday. But the no-calls definitely increased the degree of difficulty for an offensively challenged team with a razor-thin margin of error. They also confirmed, in the context of the NFC playoff race, that the three most crucial offensive pass-interference plays of 2012 didn't involve rookie Alshon Jeffery against the Packers — calls the league later supported in correspondence with the Bears.
All three involved the 10-5 Seahawks.
Besides the two against the Bears, the well-documented no-call Sept. 24 on Tate pushing Packers cornerback Sam Shields before Tate's touchdown catch on the final play gave the fifth-seeded Seahawks a victory. In a playoff picture that won't clear up after Sunday's final game, these are not insignificant details for the 9-6 Bears.
The NFL quickly acknowledged Tate's pass interference against the Packers in a public statement that precipitated the league replacing replacement referees. Days later, the lockout ended. But when it comes to the NFL and officiating, controversy is endless.
The Bears never should have put themselves in the win-or-go-home predicament they face, not with five Pro Bowl starters. They have too much talent to let one bad day by referees affect a home game in December or their entire season. But that is the reality the heavily decorated Bears created.
For the Pro Bowl cornerbacks, Week 17 also represents the challenge of keeping Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson below the 108 receiving yards he needs for 2,000. Tillman rightfully called Johnson "the LeBron James of football.''
Which means one thing: Neither Tillman nor Jennings should expect to get any calls Sunday either.