If there is one 2010 playoff team that hasn't received much respect from the media this offseason, it's the Chicago Bears -- myself included. Jason La Canfora's recent Super Bowl predictions didn't include much love for these guys, either.
Well, their frontman, quarterback Jay Cutler, didn't engender much respect with the fallout from his play, and reaction to a knee injury, in that title game. Not to mention, the receiving corps sorely needs a playmaker, a guy you have to rotate coverage to. Lastly, the offensive line has been in need of an upgrade for some time and is considered the biggest culprit for the team's struggles over the last couple of seasons.
So is there hope this team can finish 11-5 again, or at least make a run at the playoffs? Put another way: If one had to make a case for the Bears in 2011, can they?
While their schedule is certainly not easy, if the Bears can survive the first three games (vs. Falcons, at Saints, vs. Packers,) things get a bit more loving down the stretch. Chicago plays the AFC West in 2011, and the two best teams in the division -- the Chiefs and Chargers -- will be home games. Lovie Smith's group also has very winnable home games against the Panthers and Seahawks.
Putting the schedule aside, there are other positives.
First off, this team is not the Headless Horseman. Cutler has top-five quarterback talent and made strides from his interception-happy campaign of 2009. I like what the Bears did in the NFL draft, finally spending a top pick on some protection for the quarterback. If Gabe Carimi is as good as his press clippings at tackle, then Cutler and the offense just got better.
If Chicago improves its performance even slightly in a few categories, this is a team that will be formidable. The Bears finished last in the NFL in 10-play drives, sacks allowed, and turning the ball over in the red zone. Mike Martz's offense had more three-and-outs than the punchless Dodgers. But at least his offense wasn't ranked last -- just 30th, that's all.
With all that in mind, let's use some reverse logic. If Chicago was that bad in all these major categories, then they must also be pretty damn good to still finish 11-5. It's so easy to point to all the stats that reflect a crappy club, without recognizing the fact that the same group can be so good at the intangibles: Having the most dangerous return man in the history of the league (Devin Hester), great leadership on defense, clutch players, and one of the most versatile backs in the league (Matt Forte).
Most importantly, the 400-pound gorilla in the room is that defense, a unit that gave up a measly 17.9 points per game, fourth best in the NFL. No team has given up so few points and had a losing record since the 2006 Dolphins.
As long as the Bears keep teams out of the end zone like they did in 2010, they've got a puncher's chance in the NFC North again. And considering only four of the 10 NFC champions in the 2000s have even made the playoffs the following season, Green Bay is not exactly guaranteed to repeat. Meanwhile, the improved Detroit Lions aren't an 11-5 team (yet), and Minnesota could go 5-11 if Christian Ponder or Joe Webb falls flat.
So don't count the Monsters of the Midway out just yet. They caught some breaks in 2010 and might not win 11 games again, but there still could be reason to go to a Chicago sports bar to watch the Bears come mid-January.
This and that
» I wrote part of this column at a sports bar on 3rd Street in Los Angeles, thinking that it would be quiet. Instead, I had David Arquette doing his best Rage Against the Machine, yelling "$^%* you, I won't do what you tell me!" at the top of his lungs. Karaoke night, no joke.
» Be sure to watch the "Top 100: Players of 2011" this week. It's getting down to the nitty gritty, with just 20 players to go. Twenty through 11 will be revealed Sunday. I'm curious to see where Aaron Rodgers ranks. That's a tough one.
» I'm predicting the lockout ends July 15th, on a Friday. Wishful thinking?
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.