Surveying the Home Stretch: What Must Chicago Do to Earn Playoff Spot?
We're about halfway through the regular season, with the Chicago Bears having played seven games and winning six of them.
At this point in the season, the Bears are right where they thought they would be as far as their record goes. They hold a two-game lead on both Minnesota and Green Bay in the NFC North and have played phenomenal football up to this point, setting up records as they go along.
There is, however, always room for improvement. The Bears haven't had that hard of a schedule so far this season, and it's going to get tougher, with games against Green Bay, Minnesota, San Francisco and Houston left, just to name a few.
With nine games left, the Bears have just a few things to improve on, and if they do that, they can win the NFC North, and clinch a playoff spot for the 2012 NFL season.
Block Better on the Offensive Line
Ever since that embarrassing loss to Green Bay in Week 2 this season, the offensive line of the Chicago Bear looked like they were on the rise, and the team was playing better as a result of it. Jay Cutler was happy, and the team was owning their opponents.
Then they hit a snag.
The Bears have given up 11 sacks in their last two games, five against Detroit and six against Carolina, teams that they should have dominated but struggle against due to their lack of offense. Yes, Detroit did score late in the game to make the score seem close, but the Bears should have put up more than 13 points against Detroit regardless.
If the Bears want to compete with the like of Houston, San Francisco and Green Bay, they are going to have to do a better job at protecting Jay Cutler. Cutler is already hurting, and we all remember what it's like to lose Cutler late in the season after a hot start—even if the Bears have a better backup this time around.
Establish the Run Game
Matt Forte and Michael Bush have been everything Chicago could have wished for this season and then some.
When Forte went down, Bush stepped up. Once Forte was ready to come back, Bush went back to splitting time with Forte, and the team has gotten all the benefits of it.
The two have 683 yards and five touchdowns on the ground so far, but those numbers could be higher.
The Bears can't only rely on Cutler and Marshall to bail them out when they're behind late in a game like they did against Carolina. The team has to do a better job of getting the run established early and often, and then going over the top with Cutler. By doing this, they open up the offense and keep opposing defenses guessing.
If the Bears can open up their offense and put up more points per game on offense, there's no telling where this team can go.
Step Up on Special Teams
The Bears used to have the best Special Teams unit in the National Football League, without a doubt. Devin Hester ran back the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl when the Bears made it back in 2006.
So what happened between then and now, and how can the Bears fix it?
Plain and simple, the Bears need to block better on punt returns. It seems like Hester is always looking for a hole to run through, but he just has nowhere to go. That being said, Hester needs to stop running side to side and go forward. He has speed that is unparalleled in the NFL, and he needs to show that to other teams and start daring them to punt to him.
If the Bears can block better for Hester, and Hester stops running sideways and finally goes forward, the Bears will start adding that extra spark to their team that they had way back in 2006 when they won the NFC Championship Game.
Keep Creating Turnovers on Defense
The Bears have 23 takeaways this season so far and have eight interceptions returned for touchdowns, both record-setting numbers. So what can Chicago do more of to ensure they make the playoffs this year?
They need to keep doing more of the same.
It sounds simple, but the defense really is the reason that the Bears are where they are this season. Without them, the team never would have been able to fight their way back against Carolina. They also would not have been able to hang around in other games as well; in a game against the Cowboys earlier this season, the Bears intercepted Tony Romo five times.
The defense has really been the staple of this Chicago Bears team and will continue to be down the stretch of the regular season. If they keep creating turnovers, then they will keep giving their team chances to win, no matter who they are playing or how late in the season it is.
Beat Green Bay
Sounds easy enough, right?
Green Bay has three losses on the season, and it seems like when they meet up with Chicago again later this year it's going to be more than a grudge match between two rivals—it's going to decide the winner of the NFC North.
Green Bay already has a win on Chicago earlier this season, but it seems like the game later this season will be much different.
If Chicago can continue to get turnovers and force Aaron Rodgers to make mistakes, the Bears should have a good time in this game, and that should be the final deciding factor that sends them into the playoffs for sure.
If not, and the Bears lose to the Packers, it's very possible that they could lose the NFC North and have to go on the road in the playoffs, if they even make them at all. It all seems to come down to December 17th and which team comes more ready to play.