Find me a person outside of Chicago who bet 10 dollars at the start of the season that the Bears were going to the NFC championship game. Anybody? How about someone who predicted that the NFC title game would be a rematch of the week 17 Bears Packers showdown? Nobody? No, didn't think so.
After a surprising 3-0 start Chicago lost 3 of their next 4 and had many Bears fans muttering 'here we go again.'
Heading into their week 8 bye, Chicago's average play matched their average 4-3 record. Then it all clicked. Benefiting from a relatively soft schedule, the Bears ripped off 7 of their final 9 to win the NFC North with a record of 11-5.
To the Bears' delight, Seattle pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff memory setting up a match up (can you say over-match up) with Chicago at Soldier Field.
After setting the pace with a blistering 28-0 start, Chicago held on to secure a date with hated rival Green Bay in the NFC Championship game.
Even though Chicago won the division, as was apparent in the championship game, The Packers were the stronger team. They scored more points and gave up fewer throughout the season and were generally a more well built squad.
Chicago had an easier schedule and avoided the plague of injuries that nearly devastated Green Bay earlier in the season, so it wasn't surprising that the Bears succumbed to a red hot Packers team that was firing on all cylinders.
Still, to make the championship after what had been a few rough years was a great accomplishment and will certainly allow Lovie Smith to sleep a little better at night.
Season In Review: Great Strides
If finally looks as if Chicago's investment in Jay Culter is paying off. A year after throwing 26 interceptions, Culter reigned in the errant throws and put together a solid season for the Bears. Showing leadership and toughness, the quarterback led several comebacks and cemented status as the leader of the offense.
Defensively, newly acquired Julius Peppers also proved his worth, reaching opposing quarterbacks 8 times and helping to improve an already tough and physical unit.
Even though Chicago played a relative breeze of a schedule facing 10 teams with losing records, the Bears nevertheless collected a few quality wins along the way against the Eagles, Jets and eventual super bowl champion Packers.
Unfortunately for Bears' fans, the dream run finally sputtered to its inglorious end at the hands arch rival Green Bay.
While this past season wasn't fully meant to be for a tormented fan base desperate for a super bowl trophy, it leaves many in Chicago hoping that the aging Bears have one more big push left. Will next season be the year?
Offseason Momentum: Probably Not
The Bears will again be competitive no doubt about that, but another division championship will be an extremely difficult task. The Bears benefited from a unsightly implosion in Minnesota and were helped along by Green Bay's injury woes that cost them several mid season games.
Lovie Smith's job is once again safe so that distraction is mute for now and Chicago has considerable talent, but winning the division this year means tougher opponents next season as well as the unwanted attention and bulls eye that comes with being a division champ. Plus, the Vikings simply have to be better next season, the Lions are a team on the rise and oh yeah, the Green Bay Packers...
Winning the division will be much more impressive a second time around.
Offseason Anxiety: Can they continue to stay healthy
There really isn't any specific issue that the Bears can point to that might cause anxiety other than depth and Brian Urlacher's age and durability, which is of obvious concern each passing year.
Other than that, the Bears fate really rests in the strength and play of their opponents. Its hard to tell based on this past year's fluffy schedule if the Bears are truly for real. Sure they took 1 from the Packers, but they also lost 2, including the one that counted most.
Brian Urlacher may have said "We weren't playing for anything. It didn't seem like a playoff game to me," back in week 17, but I am sure he felt otherwise a a few weeks later.
This year many pundits are predicting that the Lions will finally make strides towards competing for a playoff spot. Furthermore, even without a quarterback, Minnesota is too talented not to find its winning ways.Then of course there is Green Bay. But say you are a die hard Bears fan and refuse to believe that a Farveless Vikings team and any team from Detroit will challenge you for supremacy. Fine. You at least have to admit that Atlanta, Kansas City, San Diego, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Philly and Oakland will present somewhat of a test right? Throw in two Packers games and you are talking about running quite the gauntlet.
Currently though, its all speculation. Kansas City could be a one-hit wonder and Josh Freeman in Tampa might regress considerably as well, so as a Bears' fan, you have to feel pretty good with little tangible evidence of major anxiety ahead.
Draft Desires: Depth
How the Bears managed to trade away their first 2 picks in the same year from different trades last season is beyond me. Such a lack of foresight really hurt the Bears in terms of depth this year as they are getting older in key positions and have not had the chance to groom future replacements.
The Bears are incredibly thin on both sides of the ball. In fact they are a key injury to any number of starters away from totally unraveling. Because the Bears avoided such misfortune this past season, they got away with any such vulnerabilities, but even still Culter got pounded by a weak offensive line. The first half of the season he spent more time on his back than he did standing upright.
To fix this, the Bears will almost assuredly draft an offensive tackle. Gabe Carimi would be ideal, but few are predicting he will last all the way to 28. Other available options are Nate Solder from Colorado, Anthony Castanzo from BC and Derek Sherrod from Mississippi State. In the second round, many fans are pushing and hoping for local favorite
Other areas of need include wide receiver, where Oregon's Jeff Maehl would be an excellent target in the slot and cornerback. Ras-I dowling would be an excellent selection to help shore up a secondary in desperate need of reinforcements.
Free Agency Farewells: Target Olin Kreutz
Center is not an easy position to fill. Because of its high learning curve, teams ideally spend a few years grooming the next in line. The Bears don't have such a luxury and few are better at the position than Kreutz anyway, meaning the 13 year veteran has to be priority number 1.
Others that should be welcomed back to the Bears are SS Daniel Manning and Pisa Tinoisamoa, who struggled through an injury plagued season but is normally a tackling machine. Another fan favorite who the Bears will probably re-sign is punter Brad Maynard who was voted "sexiest member of the team" and has been punting in the NFL since before I was born. (Not true. I am older than 13 but still the guy has been kicking footballs for a while).
Threat to the Stampede: None
While Colts' fans would be thrilled (for obvious reasons) if the Bears made it out of the NFC next year to face the Colts in Indy, its not going to happen. A more likely scenario is Chicago winning 8-9 games and missing the playoffs in what is becoming a very crowded NFC field. While the best teams are still in the AFC, the NFC is fast closing as the stronger conference, meaning that the Bears most likely will be left behind.
A good season Chicago, but the road gets only tougher from here.