Bears still have work to do if they want to contend in NFC North

For all of their aggressive shopping this offseason, there is this sobering thought for the Chicago Bears: They still might not finish any higher than third in the NFC North.

Think about it.

The Minnesota Vikings won the division in 2009 with a 12-4 record. If Brett Favre returns as their quarterback, they'll be favored to win it again.

The Green Bay Packers finished second last year at 11-5. They have the ingredients -- including a more experienced quarterback in the highly talented Aaron Rodgers -- to do at least as well, if not better, in 2010.

The Bears were 7-9 in 2009. That was good enough for third place, ahead of the lowly Detroit Lions. Working with as wide open a vault as they have in recent memory, the Bears seemingly improved themselves by landing the biggest prize in the free-agent market (defensive end Julius Peppers) along with other high-priced acquisitions targeted to address key areas of need.

But just how much of a difference will the newcomers make?

If it's anything less than four or perhaps even five games -- which, in the NFL, would be an improvement of staggering proportions -- the Bears could very well fall short of what they intended to get for all of that spending: first place. That's the harsh reality of life in the NFC North, which could easily be considered among the most competitive in the league.

"It's a tougher division, no question about that," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I said that last year. I knew Green Bay was going to be a good football team, and they certainly were. We knew Minnesota was (going to be good), and they certainly were. I think Detroit's done some really good things.

"And we want to stay in the hunt. We've done some pretty good things in past years, so we have a formula (for success), too, and it's going to make it a really good division."

No disagreement there. For the $91.5-million contract the Bears gave Peppers (including $42 million in guaranteed money), they should expect him to be the dominant pass rusher he was for most of his time with his previous employer, the Carolina Panthers. Consequently, they ought to be able to make life in a pocket a little more difficult for Favre, Rodgers, and the other quarterbacks they face.

The additions of running back Chester Taylor, from the Vikings, and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, from the Chargers, should help strengthen the offense.

Among the "pretty good things" Chicago has done in the past that they're still counting on to generate favorable results is last year's trade with Denver for quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears made Mike Martz their new offensive coordinator with the firm belief that he will promptly get Cutler back to the prolific passing form he showed with the Broncos in 2008.

But the Bears could use some help at offensive tackle. They also could use some help at safety. Without a first- or second-round pick in this month's draft, they seemingly will have a difficult time addressing those and other needs.

Nevertheless, Bears coach Lovie Smith doesn't want to hear any suggestions that, despite his team's headline-making offseason efforts, it still could end up behind the Vikings and Packers.

"We're a better football team now," Smith said. "I think it's safe to say that we've improved more than any team in our division. It's all you can do at this point in time. We have the draft coming up; we'll see how that turns out. But I think it's safe to say we've improved our ballclub quite a bit. And 7-9 isn't 2-14."

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Smith is quick to point out that the Bears split their games against Vikings, with a 36-10 loss on Nov. 29 and a 36-30 victory on Dec. 28. Although they lost twice to Green Bay, he notes they "could have easily won both of those games (decided by a combined 13 points)."

"And we swept the (Lions)," Smith said. "So I think we're closer ... especially at the end of the year. We played Minnesota as well as anyone."

Smith isn't fretting about the draft, citing the fact the Bears have actually done better with some of their lower picks than higher choices. The draft also is considered to be as deep as it has been in quite some time.

The Bears' offensive line has as good an anchor as any team in center Olin Kreutz. Right guard Roberto Garza is solid. Left guard Frank Omiyale shows a great deal of promise. They are comfortable with Chris Williams at left tackle, but right tackle is a question mark.

"We're no different than any other offensive line around," Smith said. "Most offensive lines have about three players you kind of like and the others are good players. That's how we feel like we'll be."

But when a team gives $121 million in contracts to three players (Peppers, Taylor, and Manumaleuna), with $55 million guaranteed, it isn't going to be viewed as any other club. It is expected to be dramatically better than it was the year before.

There's every reason to think the Bears have improved themselves. Just don't be surprised if they aren't able to escape third place in the ultra-tough NFC North.

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