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Brian Urlacher is one of several Bears who received a contract extension over the offseason.


NFC North preview:

Bears: QB holds key | Lions: Tampa north | Packers: Rodgers' neighborhood | Vikings: Ready to take charge

Something strange seems to have happened with the Bears. While everyone had their attention focused last year on the decline of the defense, the ongoing problems at quarterback and the attempt to make Devin Hester into a playmaking wide receiver, the offensive line imploded.

And if the Bears don't get it straightened out, and fast, it won't much matter how well newly minted starting quarterback Kyle Orton performs, because they won't be able to get much done with the offense.

2008 forecast
Vic Carucci : The quarterback competition is settled, yet it's hard to say just how much better things will be with Kyle Orton under center rather than Rex Grossman. The early guess is not much. Prediction: 5-11

Thomas George : Kyle Orton is the starting quarterback. Scary. Prediction: 8-8

Pat Kirwan : The quarterback and running back situations make it look like the Bears will be on the outside looking in even though Brett Favre is no longer in the division. Chicago will be better with Kyle Orton under center, but ... Prediction: 8-8

Gil Brandt : Who will play quarterback? Can the defense return to 2006 form? Who will run the ball? Too many questions. The Bears need a healthy Tommie Harris to make a difference on defense, but they open the season against four straight playoff contenders. Prediction: 5-11

» Bears' 2008 schedule
Fantasy file
Riser: Matt Forte
Forte has all the tools to be a three-down NFL back. He's already made his way atop Chicago's depth chart and should help its fans forget the short-lived Cedric Benson era.

Faller: Rex Grossman
It's hard to believe that Grossman was a viable starter just two short seasons ago. Now he'll be lucky to regain the job from Kyle Orton in the Windy City.

» Fantasy draft kit | More fantasy

On defense, Chicago retains much of the nucleus from its Super Bowl team two seasons ago, and the unit was the driving force behind that run. But the defense fell off last year and struggled in the preseason this year. A year ago, the problems were injuries and, according to linebacker Lance Briggs, a lack of disciplined play. This summer? Good question, and it has Chicago concerned.

The Bears' management believes it's still a very good team, which is why 10 players received contract extensions during the offseason -- and why the summer struggle was so perplexing. The key to success rests largely with the health of the middle of the defense -- tackle Tommie Harris, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and safety Mike Brown. Harris and Urlacher played hurt in 2007, and Brown hardly played before his season ended due to injury.

Assuming the defense can even approach its 2006 play, the role of the offense will be to chew up the clock and try to limit mistakes, and the key there is rookie running back Matt Forte, who stresses the kind of consistency Chicago has not had.

There is a lack of proven playmaking talent on offense, although the Bears believe that fourth-year receiver Rashied Davis, a former Arena League player, could be due for a breakout year. Hester, if he truly learns to run good pass patterns, could be a threat to score any time they can get the ball in his hands. Ironically, Davis, like Hester, was converted from the secondary to wideout.

On the hot seat

Quarterback Kyle Orton. He's the starter to open the season, but he has to prove he can win games, especially if the defense does not return to its 2006 form. Expect Rex Grossman, the former starter, to get the call at some point.

Difference-maker

Hester's move to wide receiver has the potential to be a big boon for the Bears -- or a big bust. Last year, when he started playing wideout during the season, he struggled with routes and coverage.

Hard road to hoe

Two straight road games to open the season, at Indianapolis and Carolina, could present a hurdle for the Bears. If they come back to Chicago 0-2, it puts the home opener against Tampa Bay in the must-win category. With Philadelphia in Week 4, the first four games are all against good defensive teams. That could be a problem for the Bears, struggling to get their offense together, especially on the line.

Bears will be better than you think if ...

The defense can approach its level of play of two years ago and the quarterbacks can simply manage games without making a lot of mistakes.

Bears will be worse than you think if ...

Rookie running back Matt Forte is not as good as advertised. Chicago simply must improve a running game that last year ranked last in the NFL in yards per carry.

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