|Associated Press / US Presswire|
|The combination of Matt Forte (left) and Julius Peppers makes the Bears a legitimate contender.|
It pushed me over the edge, but it didn't take much. I was already leaning in the Bears' direction after their Week 7 win over the Bucs in London. The reasons for getting behind Chicago are pretty cut and dried:
a. The defense has been effective as of late, keeping the team in games by both scheme and sheer effort
b. The schedule is more than conducive to earn a wild-card berth
c. Chicago's biggest threat to a playoff berth visits Soldier Field this weekend, with the advantage going to the home team
Let's start there. Last time the Bears and Lions hooked up, Detroit had its way with Rod Marinelli's defense. Jahvid Best went off and Calvin Johnson took advantage of some bad business decisions by safety Chris Harris.
That was then, this is now. The Bears tired of the bad angles, among other things, from Harris, ultimately making their own business decision in releasing the safety. His partner, Brandon Meriweather, got benched.
Meanwhile, Major Wright has filled in viably for the Bears, upping his play enough for the Bears to go forward with a back end defensive duo of Wright and rookie Chris Conte. Both were a deciding factor in limiting Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to a combined six catches for 79 yards in the big win over the Eagles.
Neither will be asked to help corral Best. The Lions sophomore running back is not likely to play this weekend as he deals with the lingering effects of a concussion sustained last month. That leaves Maurice Morris in the backfield and a major drop-off in big-play potential from the Lions' run game.
Putting those issues aside, as well as the big conference win in Philly, the long-term prospects for the Bears look good upon examining the back half of the schedule.
After the Lions depart town, the Bears host a Chargers team lacking an offensive identity. Then it's a road game against Raiders squad featuring an adjusting-on-the-fly quarterback; home versus a Chiefs team that just got Fasano'd by the feeble Dolphins; and then at Denver, where Julius Peppers might thoroughly enjoy Tim Tebow's penchant for holding the ball.
OK, maybe they drop an AFC West game, but it's certainly doubtful that they end up losing two of those four. Week 15 brings the Tarvaris Jackson Experience to town, which should be another Bears victory.
That's when the schedule finally gets interesting. Chicago gets another crack at the Pack in Green Bay (who may be playing for nada at that point), and then finishes up in Minnesota. Basically, the second half of the schedule doesn't exactly present the most challenging path to the playoffs, and certainly presents an opportunity for the Bears to get to double-digit wins.
My feeling is that Chicago goes at least 5-3 down the back stretch, including winning the home matchup with the Lions on Sunday. While much of that is based on the opponents, and their respective quarterbacks (Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Tebow, Jackson and Christian Ponder), the other portion of Chicago's playoff case resides in the much improved -- and 2010-esque -- defense.
Lovie Smith's 4-3, Cover 2 based D has been solid since the Monday night debacle in Detroit. With the switch at safety, and very strong linebacker play, the Chicago defense has limited opponents to 52 points over the past three games -- an average of just over 17 points per game.
Last season, the Bears finished fourth in the NFL allowing roughly the same points per game (17.9) en route to an 11-5 campaign. Also of note: The Bears started 4-3 (like this year) before going on a 7 of 9 tear.
It's very possible Chicago can get to 11 wins again, while 10 is probable. Matt Forte is a bigger force than he was in 2010, mostly because Mike Martz's adjusted play calling has the Bears utilizing their best weapon more consistently, and by virtue, more effectively. Jay Cutler finally has the internal clock in his head down pat, often getting the ball out of his hands before taking a sack -- something he didn't do enough last season.
Speaking of sacks, don't forget the improved play from the much maligned offensive line that allowed Bears quarterbacks to be sacked a league-leading 56 times last season. They've given up 21 this year â¦ a nice, if not startling, improvement.
Expect the line play to get even better when the club gets Gabe Carimi, its top overall draft pick, back at tackle. Meanwhile, Earl Bennett has returned to the lineup, and is already doing damage. Of his five catches vs. the Eagles, four went for first downs and the other for a touchdown.
Things are looking up in Chi-town. Don't look at the Monday night win as a mirage. If youngsters Wright and Conte can keep up the improved safety play, Cutler continues his safer decision-making, and Martz deploys Forte like a queen on the chessboard, this team is going to the playoffs. Then, who knows what they're capable of?