NFC North Rank: 2nd
Projected Record: 9-7
The Chicago Bears have failed to make the playoffs the last three seasons despite boasting a winning cumulative record in those years. It is a combination of misfortune (10-6 in 2012 but did not clinch a berth) and inept play on both sides of the ball at times. They have been a perennial defensive powerhouse in the league, but the landscape in Chicago has been changing for the past couple years. The Bears won all eight of their games last season, because of their performance on offense, not on defense. This offseason was critical in building young talent on defense. In recent history, the Bears have had a tendency to start each season out strong, but the finish has not always been perfect.
The quarterback play in Chicago was better last year than it has been for a few seasons. It is typically hard to come by two different starters who both prove their worth over the course of the season. However, that was the case in the Windy City last year. QBs Jay Cutler and Josh McCown both had seasons that parted from the ineffectiveness that plagued them in the previous few years. Cutler was playing incredibly well within the context of the offense for the first seven games before going down with a torn groin. The injury did not force new HC Marc Trestman to embark on anything drastic though. He coached like he always has, by emphasizing quarterback play and the results showed.
McCown immediately filled the void at quarterback by throwing 13 touchdowns to just one interception after six starts. Despite McCown’s strong performance, he was unable to attain a full-time starting role under center after Cutler came back with three games remaining. Cutler did prove his worth though by posting 713 yards and six touchdowns in those final three games. Although the Bears were unable to clinch a playoff spot in those three games by going 1-2, it was certainly not Cutler’s fault. With McCown off to the Buccaneers, Cutler does not have that same pressure to perform, as his starting role is not in jeopardy. As long as he does not become complacent in the upcoming season, he has the talent and resources to win on the offensive side of the ball.
The receiving corps in Chi-town is among the league’s best. Cutler’s top two options are WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, both of whom are among the top 10 receivers in the league. Jeffery broke out of his shell and had massive numbers last season ranking 6th in the league in receiving yards (1,421) and 10th in receptions (89). Marshall, who played opposite of Jeffery, had yet another spectacular season catching 100 balls for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns. These two made up the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL last season. And they will duplicate their feats. Jeffery is only getting better with experience while Marshall has been a top three receiver for some time and only just turned 30 this year. Cutler and Marshall have been together for two years in Chicago in addition to the three seasons they spent together in Denver building their rapport. If Jeffery can build that constant chemistry with Cutler, then both are primed to have big seasons. If the passing game is utilized effectively in tandem with the running game, then opposing defensive coordinators have a reason to worry.
RB Matt Forte is certainly in the upper echelon of the league’s running backs. He is even elite by many standards. Forte has rushed for more than 6,600 yards in his first six seasons in the league. The scary part is that he might even have better statistical seasons in the immediate future. Some elite running backs are surrounded by inept passing games, so the defense stacks men in the box to contain the back. This is and will not be the case in Chicago. With a new and improved passing game, Forte will strike. Opposing defenses cannot overcommit on any single individual, as he is also one of the best receiving backs in the game. He caught a whopping 74 receptions for 594 yards last year, so Cutler has a reliable presence in the backfield. Forte adds another tangible dimension to this already potent offense.
The aforementioned defense has seen better days. The Bears ranked dead last in rush defense by allowing 161.4 rushing yards per game. To make matters worse, DE Julius Peppers departed the team this offseason for the division rival Packers. Peppers was good in his four years in Chicago, but did not live up to the hype. His exorbitant six-year $91.5 million contract made it quite difficult for him to live up to any expectations. The Bears believe they have found a suitable replacement in DE Jared Allen though. He signed with Chicago after six stellar seasons in Minnesota. He will help more with rushing the quarterback but has the ability to stop the run as well.
The team completely revamped the interior of the line to help with the run. The signing of DT Lamarr Houston will make an instant impact on the line. His play on Oakland’s line showed with the Raiders ranked 13th in run defense a season ago. Chicago also used their second round draft pick on a big Ego Ferguson, who weighs in at 315 pounds. He has decent upside but more importantly, will be able to start early in the season. The combination of these two new signings automatically improves the previously lackluster interior.
Da Bears have had a tough time contending in the past few years, but bad luck has played an immense role in that. The combination of injuries and sheer unluckiness in the NFC North standings has cost them trips to the playoffs. In the upcoming season though, Chicago will be strong from the get-go showing tremendous chemistry on offense. The majority of Chicago’s victories will be contingent upon the play of Jay Cutler, but once the passing game works in unison with Matt Forte and the ground game, this offense will become elite. The defense has inevitably improved from some key additions to the line, so it will be hard to see them let up as many yards and points as last year’s unit. Ultimately, Chicago’s position in the division will be determined by one or two games and the team has a habit of not showing up when it matters most. Therefore, winning the division may prove to be futile, but a Wild Card berth is absolutely in the realm of possibility.
Pics and Stats from ESPN.com