With a 7-1 record and a defense that is drawing historical comparisons to the greats of the past, the Chicago Bears are well on their way to the NFL Playoffs.
The Bears took care of business against overmatched opponents in the first half of their schedule, but the second leg of the race to the postseason will be much tougher than the first.
Critics of Lovie Smith's squad have pointed to the weak schedule as the reason for the Bears' dominance in the prior weeks, but now they will be given an opportunity to turn the doubters into believers. Prime-time matchups with the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers will be a great litmus test for one of the league's elite teams.
While the defense has been stellar, the offense—aside from the Cutler-to-Marshall connection—could use some improvement for the Bears to keep a choke hold on first place in the NFC North. In addition, aspiring for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage is not out of the question, despite the Atlanta Falcons' unblemished record.
So what must the Bears do to have the best record in the conference? Will they retain their lead over their rival the Green Bay Packers?
Here is what the home-stretch will look like for the Bears.
The Chicago Bears haven't exactly played a schedule full of cupcakes, but of their first eight opponents, only the Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers have winning records.
This makes for an opponents' winning percentage of just above 40 percent in the first half, but the next eight games will be an entirely different story.
The Bears will have three games against the league's elite teams—two of which in the next two week—in the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers and Packers. In addition, the Bears have four other games against legitimate contenders for the playoffs: Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings (twice), and Detroit Lions.
But the Bears aren't the only ones with tough games remaining. The Packers (6-3) have to make trips to Chicago and New York (Giants). The 49ers (6-2) have the Bears at home on Monday Night Football, along with road games at New Orleans, New England and Seattle. The Giants (6-3) may have the toughest second-half slate with home games against the Packers and New Orleans Saints, in addition to road trips to Washington, Atlanta and Baltimore.
However, while Bears fans are concerned with where their team stands amongst those contenders, there's no doubt that the race with the Atlanta Falcons for home-field remains in the back of their minds. With Matt Ryan looking like the front-runner for MVP, the Falcons look better than ever, but there is reason to believe the Bears can catch them.
The Falcons still have tough divisional series with the Tampa Bay "Doug Martins" and the New Orleans Saints, along with a tough matchup with the Giants. It would be realistic to predict at least two losses from Atlanta out of those games, but that may not be enough for Chicago to take over the top spot.
The Bears showed they can put it to the teams they are supposed to beat, but can they win the tough ones? We will find out shortly.
For the Chicago Bears' dream of hosting the NFC Championship at Soldier Field in January to come true, they must win the battle of matchups.
So far, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers game, the Bears defense has confused, outplayed and completely dominated their opponents. However, there are worthy opponents ahead who can challenge the league's most talented defense.
The most dangerous threat is Aaron Rodgers, who has won his last five games against Chicago. Mr. Discount Double Check has picked apart the Bears defense of late, totaling nine touchdowns and only two interceptions in the rivals' last three matchups.
While the Packers have been flawed this season, Rodgers still remains as one of top quarterbacks in the game. His 107.4 QB rating ranks second in the NFL.
A mid-December matchup with this Bear killer could determine who wears the division crown.
Another hot quarterback on the Bears schedule is Alex Smith. The San Francisco 49ers signal caller has continued his progression this season, playing extremely efficient football (102.1 QB rating). Bears fans would like to think that Jay Cutler is the more talented quarterback in that Monday Night Football matchup, but actions speak louder than words.
The Bears will also have to worry about two of the NFL's top running backs in Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster. Despite last season's injury, Peterson has been a workhorse, totaling a league-high 957 rushing yards. Containing Foster will also be a tough task, as he ranks first in the NFL with 10 rushing touchdowns.
Nevertheless, the Bears defense will not likely be the problem going forward. The most pivotal matchups will be between opposing defenses and Mike Tice's offense—in particular the offensive line.
Opposing pass rushers have feasted in games against the Bears this season, and J.J. Watt is waiting for his turn to eat. Watt leads the league in sacks this year (10.5), and is at the head of the race for Defensive Player of the Year, along with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.
In addition, Clay Matthews will be coming back for seconds. Hopefully for the Bears, J'Marcus Webb will not allow Goldilocks to eat Cutler's porridge like he did at Lambeau Field earlier this season.
There is no doubt that the Chicago Bears have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NFL, and their record suggests that they are already just that.
But there is still a lot of football left to be played to determine where the Bears rank in the league's hierarchy.
Lovie Smith's team probably needs only three or four more wins to make the playoffs, but this squad is beyond hopes for a Wild Card spot.
Led by a dominating defense, the Bears will win six of their last eight games (losing to Houston and San Francisco).
That will be enough to lock up the NFC North; the Green Bay Packers make it as a Wild Card. As for home-field advantage, the Atlanta Falcons will lose three games (@Tampa Bay, @New Orleans and vs. New York). This will give the Bears a better conference record and they will claim the top spot in the NFC.
The excitement is already building in Chicago, and the Bears hope to keep the momentum rolling.
This is a Super Bowl-caliber Bears squad, now it's time for them to live up to the hype.