Is there anything worse for a Bears fan than heading into a new season with the Packers as the defending champions? What makes it even more gut-wrenching is the fact that the Packers got into the playoffs by beating the Bears in the last week of the season, and they advanced to the Super Bowl by beating the Bears in the NFC Championship Game...at Soldier Field! That's two crushing defeats at the hands of our hated rival, yet I haven't heard anything from the Chicago media--much less the players and coaches--about this during training camp. Has the business of the NFL reduced the amount of pride players have for their team and their city? Probably, but that's a discussion for another time. The question is have the Bears improved enough from last season to challenge the Packers in 2011?
The weakness of the the Chicago Bears begins upfront on the offensive line. If they struggle to protect Jay Cutler, the offense will falter. The NFL is a passing league, but the Bears offense since the 1940s has rarely scared anyone with its ability to move the ball consistently through the air. It showed some flashes at the end of last season against the Jets, Eagles, and Seahawks in the playoffs, but it has a long way to go to catch up with the elite teams. The best teams have dangerous passing offenses that can either dominate for an entire game (Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers) and/or can come through when the game is on the line (Roethlisberger). The Cutler/Martz offense can move the ball in big chunks at times, and the running game proved it could be an effective weapon last season, but it is not explosive or consistent enough to consider the 2011 Chicago Bears Super Bowl contenders. For as much as everyone likes to talk about parity, it's the elite passing teams that contend for the Super Bowl Title, and those are few and far between.
Of course, naysayers will argue that teams with Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, and a rookie Ben Roethlisberger have won Super Bowls in the last decade. That's true, but those teams had elite defenses (not just good or even great). It is the exception to the rule. In 2011, a dominating passing offense with a great QB means more than a great defense.
With that in mind, moving the kickoff line to the 35-yard line might actually help the Bears since the defense is their strength. Teams struggle to move the ball the entire field against Lovie's Cover 2 because it is so good at preventing the big play, and this will only help. But, of course, the special teams excel at giving the Bears offense a short field, so the net impact will probably be worse.
The defense should be good again, possibly better than last year. Henry Melton looks like the real deal at defensive tackle. That position is key in the Cover 2. The Bears dominated when Tommie Harris was reeking havoc from that position in 2005 and 2006. And, Amobi Okoye was a great signing to backup Melton. Peppers and Urlacher will make their usual impact, and the secondary, while not dominate, will continue to keep the completions in front of them. The Bears just signed safety and two-time Pro Bowler, Brandon Merriweather, after he was cut by the Patriots. Not exactly sure why he was cut, but he certainly has been an impact player since joining the league in 2007. Not sure what this'll mean for their starting lineup, but it is another intriguing addition to their defense.
It is more than a little worrisome that Briggs asked for a trade. Nothing like some locker room disharmony to kickoff the new season! In my opinion, the Bears should restructure Briggs' deal and throw him a few more dollars, but he was an idiot for asking for a trade. He lost whatever small amount of public sentiment a millionaire athlete can have when this information became public. Angelo and company don't like to be threatened, and I worry that this situation might get real ugly.
The special teams--the strongest unit year-in and year-out for the Bears--will likely struggle early this season with so many new faces. Major contributors Garrett Wolfe, Tim Shaw, and Rashied Davis have all departed. Adam Podlesh takes over the punting duties from Brad Maynard, who was excellent at directional kicking, but struggled recently with distance. Coordinator Dave Toub will be counting on youth to cover kicks. Don't be surprised to see some hiccups in September. I'd be surprised, though, if Toub's unit wasn't rolling by mid-season.
It is tough to see the Bears winning more games than last year, even though they might actually be a better team. In 2010, they faced 3rd string QBs, had a soft schedule, and were unbelievably healthy--a pretty good string of good fortune that is unlikely to continue. They did beat playoff teams late in the year, though (Jets, Eagles), which gives me a little bit of hope that this could be on the ascent.
The Bears play the NFC South (Falcons, Saints, Panthers, Bucs), and the AFC West (Chiefs, Broncos, Raiders, Chargers). Plus, the NFC North will be tough (Lions will be better, Vikes could be better, Packers won't be worse). Seahawks and Eagles will be their other opponents. If they hope to make the playoffs, they will need to beat a bunch of team with realistic playoff chances, most of whom have improved in the offseason.
Overall, I think the Bears are a 9-7 team that'll finish strong and just miss the playoffs (last six games are: Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, Packers, and Vikings). If everything goes right, the Bears could get to 10 wins, but the Packers will once again be the class of the division and the NFC (that was painful to say). The Bears just don't match up well against Dom Capers' defense. I would love for Cutler/Martz to find a way to beat that overaggressive, blitz-happy scheme.
The good news is that expectations are again low this year. No experts that I've seen have picked the Bears to make the playoffs but, of course, no one thought they'd do much last year (yours truly included) and they got to the NFC Championship game. They seem to enjoy playing with a chip on their shoulder. Wouldn't it be nice if they won this year without looking like they got every break imaginable? I'd love to see the offensive line come together, Cutler take the next step, and the defense dominate. The Bears have a fairly talented roster, so another playoff appearance wouldn't surprise me. I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised once again.
Just for fun, here's the rest of my predictions for the NFL season.
NFC Division Winners: Packers, Eagles, Falcons, Rams
NFC Wild Card: Giants, Saints
NFC Champ: Packers
AFC Divison Winners: Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Chargers
AFC Wild Card: Ravens, Jets
AFC Champ: Patriots
Super Bowl Champ: Patriots