As the NFL nears the halfway point (already?) of the 2012 regular season, there have been plenty of surprises (Minnesota, Seattle, Miami, Washington), and a handful of teams (New York Giants, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, Baltimore) have performed about as anticipated. Injuries, as always, have forced several teams to go to Plan B (and even Plan C in some instances). Formidable players such as Ray Lewis, Darrelle Revis, Troy Polamalu, Brian Orakpo, Jon Beason, Charles Woodson, Sean Lee, Brian Cushing, Nate Kaeding and Fred Davis have either been sidelined for the season or missed (or expected to miss) considerable time. One team that has also been somewhat of a surprise is the Chicago Bears (5-1). Not surprisingly, the Bears have managed to avoid any significant injuries to key players thus far, which is a far cry from their injury-riddled 2011 season.
Along with Atlanta (6-0), New York (5-2) and San Francisco (5-2), the 5-1 Bears appear to be the clear-cut class of the NFC. The NFC North is arguably the strongest division in the conference (if not the entire NFL), with three teams (Chicago, Green Bay, Minnesota) looking to be serious postseason contenders, and that’s not even considering Detroit, which earned a Wild Card slot in 2011, although they’ve struggled (2-4) in early 2012.
Going into 2012, expectations for Chicago had been lowered somewhat, primarily due to past performance, and the crippling injuries that waylaid their 2011 season were also a concern. Another factor that perhaps kept the “experts” from predicting bigger and better things was the team’s age. Although Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Devin Hester, Chicago’s best playmakers, are all nearing or currently in their prime, several other standouts, especially on defense, are in their early-to-mid-30s. Brian Urlacher (34), Julius Peppers (32), Lance Briggs (31), Charles Tillman (31) and Israel Idonije (31) are all clearly past their prime, and the proverbial “window of opportunity” is closing rapidly. To their credit, each of the “greybeards” are performing at an All-Pro level, most notably Urlacher and Peppers.
New GM Phil Emery brought in several new faces that have contributed heavily to the team’s 5-1 start. The acquisition of WR Brandon Marshall has given Chicago a reliable receiver, something the Bears have lacked for several seasons. It was a stroke of genius to reunite Marshall and Cutler, who’d broken numerous records in Denver, including three consecutive 100+ reception seasons. Another key pickup has been RB Michael Bush, free agent from Oakland. Bush provides a nice change-of-pace from Forte as well as being capable of carrying the featured back load in case Forte goes down. In Emery’s first draft, he grabbed Boise State DE Shea McLellin and WR Alshon Jeffrey of South Carolina. Both have already shown great potential and should only get better as they mature.
Is Chicago a legitimate Super Bowl contender? At this point in the season, the answer has to be a positive one. Few, if any other NFL squads can boast such balance on both sides of the ball, and the Bears have the luxury of being able to score from virtually any spot on the field, a quality recent Bear squads have lacked. As Jeffrey gains more experience, he and Marshall provide Cutler with as productive a 1-2 receiving punch as there is in the league, and with Bush able to give Forte sufficient rest, opposing defenses can no longer expect a “breather” when personnel changes. As for the defense, as long as they can avoid the injury bug and maintain their high level of play, the age concern will be a non-issue.
Chicago’s remaining schedule also appears to be in their favor, although they must play Minnesota twice and get Green Bay at home within the NFC North. Other upcoming tough opponents are Houston (Home), San Francisco (Away) and Seattle (Home). Barring injury, ten wins should be a no-brainer, and with a few lucky bounces, twelve victories isn’t out of the question.
Ryan was born and raised in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where he grew up engrossed in all Chicago sports (except the Sox). A loyal Bears fan for all his life, it makes sense that he now works for an online sports company that deals with Chicago Bears clothing. (http://www.fansedge.com/Chicago-Bears-Merchandise-_-418918182_BW.html)