While the Lions have a lot of talent and made the playoffs last year, the perception among many pundits is that the Bears have a steeper climb.
A new offense, a new coordinator, new cogs on the defense, a running back agitating for a new contract—all could threaten to topple the Bears season.
Of course, the aim is to better the 8-8 record of 2011. Make the playoffs. Get a shot at the Super Bowl.
Their schedule is not overly hard—the road schedule isn't as bad as, say, the Lions' and the tougher games are mostly at home. A better than 8-8 schedule is definitely in the mix.
Here's what the Bears need to do in order to take the next step forward in their quest for the Lombardi.
Sign Forte Long-term
I think, at this point, you know I fall firmly down on the side of paying Matt Forte a decent monetary total in a long term contract. He's more than earned it and the knee issue is nowhere near as bad as it has been suggested it is.
Remember that in most contracts, the last few years are ones which can easily be altered or straight out cut out. Just because Forte has a five year deal does not mean he sees all five years. The Bears can easily make the fourth or fifth year optional or without guaranteed money.
It makes him happy and brings him back into the fold. I like Michael Bush, but he's unproven compared to Forte, and further, even at his best not the back Forte is.
I'd much rather have both than just one. Forte and Bush in the same backfield will be a nightmare for the opposition. A happy Forte will be a very productive Forte, and that's nothing but good for this offense.
Settle the Receiver Depth Chart
Seriously, enough of these games. I get it, Hester looks good—in shorts and a t-shirt—in May.
Hester's problem isn't that he can't catch a ball. It isn't that he can't run fast and look good catching in stride.
It's that he struggles to get separation and play off press coverage. Stop trying to play up how good he looks in camp.
Brandon Marshall is the No. 1. Alshon Jeffery or Earl Bennett should be the No. 2.
Let Hester be the No. 3 on occasion or a great guy off the bench.
The sooner we settle on a depth chart at the position, the sooner the guys can start really getting their timing down.
You get the timing down by the time we hit the start of the season, and the team will get a lot of the early season victories that could mean the difference in making the playoffs, forget about where they'd be slotted.
Defense Has to Play Better
I'm writing about this in depth next week so, be forewarned—for all the times we talk about how good the Bears defense is, the truth is that the defense isn't quite as legendary as we say. If you don't believe me, go take a look at NFL.com's defensive rankings going back to 2004—Lovie Smith's first year.
Last season, they ended up ranked 17th in the league, with an abysmal 25th against the run and a mediocre 15th against the pass.
Hard to believe, huh?
Like I said, I'll be taking this on next week, but what that leaves you with is the thought that this team needs to get it's act together on defense. If you look at the teams which scored on them a lot, you see the expected—Packers, Lions, Eagles—and the unexpected—Panthers, Raiders, Seahawks.
I'm curious to see what a deeper look reveals, but for now, I'll just say this is a defense which has been getting by on rep and needs to step back up to the plate.
Offensive Line Play
The Bears and I will agree to disagree. I can trot out the same statistic I usually do—Pro Football Focus' dead last ranking—to show they have an issue but they believe that they have the talent to rebound.
They'd better because otherwise this could be another long season. The line, like the wide receiver depth chart, needs to get straightened out. Shuffling guys like Chris Williams and J'Marcus Webb in and out of left tackle concerns me, and I hope Gabe Carimi pans out at right in the very least.
Across the board, though,they need to play better here. Cutler, one of the most hit quarterbacks playing, needs more time and a safer pocket.
No Cutler, no Super Bowl—that was very clear at the end of last season.
No offensive line, perhaps no Cutler.
Certainly, there are a lot more moving parts to a season than these, but if the Bears hit these points, they're in very good position to make the playoffs, and perhaps, a run at the title.