I bet that headline caught your attention. Despite the consistent success of a few franchises, the NFL has become a very unpredictable place. The rollar coaster ride has become particularly bumpy in the NFC with an ever changing fight for dominance. The era of the mid-90’s when Dallas and San Francisco made the NFC Championship a better game than the Super Bowl is over. A new team will likely be crowned NFC Champion this year. This is my explanation for how the Bears can get there.
Believe it or not, the Bears may have done themselves a favor getting rid of Cedric Benson. He was never able to translate his success in college to success in the NFL. The Bears kept giving him second chances because they wasted a high first round draft pick on him and were hoping to get a little production for their wasted money. With Benson out of the way it paves the way for rookie Matt Forte and veteran Adrian Peterson. Between the two they pose a better chance for the Bears to establish a running game than wasting more time hoping Benson would produce. Coach Lovie Smith recently said that he likes the Bears running back depth chart and they don’t see a need to pursue a free agent running back. Quarterback Rex Grossman looks like he’s running sand when he’s scrambling in the pocket, but he throws a beautiful deep ball off play action. If the Bears have a running game, they can produce some big plays.
Last year the offense got most of the attention as the reason the Bears lots. Let’s get something straight right now, the Bears never have and never will pretend to be an offensive team. They preach defense and then more defense. Last year the entire defense got banged up, losing both starting cornerbacks, safety Mike Brown, and Tommie Harris played with a bad knee the entire season. The return of a healthy defense could quickly return the Bears to dominance quicker than critics believe. The Bears defense got them to the Super Bowl two years ago when all they had on offense was Thomas Jones and a chance-taking Rex Grossman. This defensive unit can create turnovers, score touchdowns, and win games all by itself. If the injury bug can stay off their backs this season, the results may look much different than last year.
Last season, the Bears offense was so pathetic that opposing teams were willing to kickoff out-of-bounds and give the Bears the ball on the 40-yard line rather than kick to Devin Hester. I can tell you from sitting in the stands and watching him on the field, he is the fastest, most ellusive man I have ever seen. The Bears have talked about letting Hester sit out some kickoffs so he can focus more of his energy on playing wide receiver. Everyone is holding their breath to see how this experiment works out for the offense. Last season Hester looked confused after leaving the huddle and frequently had to be reminded his assignment by a fellow receiver, usually Muhsin Muhammed. Hester has had a full season to study the playbook and if he can make an impact on offense he will offer an immediate spark to ignite scoring. The quarterback just has to get the ball in Hester’s hands and he can carve up the defense on his own. If the offense can produce, they will either be able to take advantage of the great field position, or teams will have to kick to Hester. Either option works in the Bears favor.
A Deep Pass To……Who?
The Bears decided the offense needed to go in a new direction this season. Last year they got a very talented tight end in Greg Olsen who can run and block and this year they picked up a top tackle in Chris Williams to solidify the line. Everyone already knows about the running back situation, but the wide receiver corps is a complete unknown. The top 2 receivers from last season, Muhsin Muhammed and Bernard Berrian, are gone and in are Marty Booker, Brandon Lloyd, rookie Earl Bennett, rookie Marcus Monk, Mark Bradley, Rashied Davis, and Mike Hass. That’s a lot of names isn’t it? That’s because the Bears have no idea who will be the starting wide receivers and have brought in a whole new crop to choose from. Marty Booker had a lot of success the first time he played with the Bears and is happy to be home. He will be the veteran presence but it is unclear how much talent he has left. Brandon Lloyd has be praised as the best looking receiver in OTA’s and appears to be the most promising prospect of the bunch. Surprising little has been said about rookie draft picks Bennett and Monk, which isn’t good and means they need to step it up in training camp. Davis and Bradley have been with the team a few years and are good, but far from being great. Mike Hass just missed making the team last year but made some absolutely amazing catches in the preseason last year and eyes will be on him this year. I will say one thing, the Bears have made many mistakes in the draft but they have rarely made mistakes with wide receiver. Booker and Lloyd will be the front runners, but Bennett and Monk may become big producers down the line.
Last year the Bears had a tough time with their own division, getting beat up by the Vikings, Packers, and the Lions. Hopefully this year the Bears will solve the riddle of how a terrible Lions team managed to give them hell and keep the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson from running all over the field. Brett Favre was always a Bears killer and with him gone the defense should be able to exhale a little bit. The problem is the NFL North appears to have replaced Favre with the new division star in Peterson. It will be hard to match up against a good Vikings team, but I will be interested to see how they treat Berrian in the first game. If the Bears are going to have any success, they have to find a way to at least split the games with their three rivals.
Coach Lovie Smith likes to break the season into quarters so I’ll do the same. First quarter: open against the Colts in their new stadium, at Panthers, Bucs, and Eagles. I would LOVE to see the Bears take out the Colts in their new stadium but I doubt the Bears will have everything ready. This team will take time to feel each other with so many new faces. The Bears need to rebound quickly with a win against the Panthers. The Bears have always enjoyed success against the Bucs and they have bigger problems than the Bears with their roster. The Eagles are always tough in the beginning of the season with a healthy McNabb. They’ll likely open 2-2.
Second quarter: at Lions, at Falcons, Vikings, Lions. The Bears played the Lions close together last season and it spelled disaster as they confused Bears coaches both times. This year I doubt they will let the same thing happen. The Falcons are a few years away from being competitive in the NFL and should offer some relief. The first match up against the Vikings will be charged up for the Bears to test themselves against the new NFL darling as NFC favorite. Second quarter record: 3-1.
Third quarter: Titans, at Packers, at Rams, at Vikings. You never know what to expect from the Titans and Vince Young. However, Brian Urlacher has always matched up well against scrambling quarterbacks by chasing down all over the field. He did it to Michael Vick and he should be able to do it against Young. The Bears then have a tough three game stretch of away games but thankfully they are all in the midwest and will save players from travel fatigue. The Bears will try to take advantage of a Favre-less Packers, shut down the Ram offense, and try to escape Minnesota with a victory. They will be successful in 2 out of 3 trips. Third quarter record: 3-1.
Fourth quarter: Jaguars, Saints, Packers, at Texans. This will be the toughest stretch of the season for the Bears and will test their ability. By this time they will be in contention for a playoff spot but will have to fight hard to keep it. The Bears play the Jaguars on Sunday and then must prepare for the Saints on Thursday night. The Jaguars are a physical team and may present a problem for players to be ready by Thursday for a talented Saints team. I fear at best they will split these games and could possibly drop them both. The Bears will have no problem getting focused for the Packers game at Soldier Field on December 22nd for Monday Night Football. The house will be rocking and the Bears will be looking to put on a good show. The Texans offer a nice trip to warm Texas and hopefully wrap up a playoff spot. Fourth quarter record: 2-2.
That leaves the Bears with a record of 10-6 and in the NFC that will always get you to the playoffs.
Playoff Match Ups
The good news about a good Minnesota team is that if the Bears meet them in the playoffs, they will be very familiar with each other. The more experience you have with a team, regardless of talent, the better chance you have to find a way to beat them. Teams like the Saints and Cowboys are unpredictable but talented and may face challenges for the Bears. However, no NFC team has really established itself as a top team beyond ranking speculation. As we have seen, a key injury to the Cowboys or Saints lineup can leave them vulnerable. A lot of things can happen in a football season. As the saying goes, any given sunday. The opportunities are there for the Bears if they can seize it.