Jay Cutler needs to produce at a high level if the Bears are going to compete for the NFC North title.
A third-place finish in 2012, even with 10 wins, was a disappointment and cost Lovie Smith his job. Marc Trestman needs to lead the Bears to a better record, and there’s reason to expect at least a second-place finish and a playoff appearance.
Here’s how Chicago will fare against each NFC North opponent.
The Lions lost 12 games last year, but they are much better than their record suggests. Detroit’s offense managed 372 points over the course of the season, only three fewer than the Bears and seven fewer than the Vikings.
Its defense was the problem in 2012.
General manager Martin Mayhew tried to improve that side of the ball through the draft, taking defensive end Ziggy Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay in the first and second rounds. Both players have questions marks but could develop into great starters.
Those additions simply won’t be enough to overpower the Bears.
The Lions have the misfortune of playing in a division with three playoff-caliber teams, making winning records difficult to post, much less playoff appearances. They may be an improving team, but Chicago’s defense is too strong.
In their first game last season, the Bears almost shut out the Lions. When they met again, Chicago forced four turnovers against Detroit in the season finale.
Expect the Bears to limit Reggie Bush this year, forcing Matthew Stafford to challenge the Bears’ talented cornerbacks. He didn’t pass for over 275 yards in either 2012 game, though he averaged 310.4 yards per game last season. Stafford couldn’t beat Chicago then, and he can’t beat Chicago now.
Bottom line: Chicago, 2-0
Minnesota snatched a playoff berth from Chicago last season due to its better division record.
The two clubs split the regular-season games, with each team winning on the road.
The Vikings retain their obvious handicap, quarterback Christian Ponder, as well as MVP running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson ran all over the NFC North last year; he had 409 yards against the Packers, 273 yards against the Lions and 262 yards against the Bears. The Bears need to stop the powerful back if they’re going to take both games from their purple foes.
Turncoat Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson give the Vikings offense a boost, but there’s only so much Ponder can do. Everything hinges on containing Peterson.
Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Gerald Hodges all have the ability to produce from Day 1 as rookies. The Vikings did a great job bolstering both sides of the ball, and they have a good shot to reach double-digit wins again.
There’s no way the Bears drop more than one against Minnesota, though. The main reason is Brandon Marshall.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was a great pick, but nobody on the Vikings’ roster can guard Marshall. Nobody could last year, either; he amassed 22 receptions for 252 yards against them in two games.
Marshall and the linebackers are the obvious X-factors. There’s a bevy of talent on the roster at linebacker, but whoever replaces Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach needs to bring his best against Minnesota. Peterson can drag Minnesota to victory.
Expect a reverse of last year: the Vikings will ride Peterson to win a close one at home (they were 7-1 there last year) and lose at Soldier Field.
Bottom line: Split, 1-1
Lovie Smith made a well-known proclamation when he came to Chicago: He wanted to beat the Green Bay Packers.
In recent years, Aaron Rodgers stood in his way.
Jay Cutler didn’t help much either, throwing for under 150 yards in both games against the Packers.
Quarterback play will be key in this game, and Marc Trestman’s system and tutelage may be extremely beneficial to Cutler.
Marc Trestman’s success with quarterbacks, a revamped offensive line (plus quality coach Aaron Kromer) and the West Coast system all suggest that Cutler will be upright longer this year. That was what destroyed Cutler in the first game against Green Bay, when he was sacked seven times and threw four interceptions.
The second game was much closer, but the Bears still couldn’t muster enough offense. Alshon Jeffery looked very much like a rookie in that game, so improvement in his second year might make a difference in the end result.
Cutler, Forte, Marshall and the rest of the receivers (be it Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett or someone else) must step up against Green Bay. If they don’t produce points, the Bears will lose both games again.
Rodgers has been incredibly good since he became the starter for the Packers, but Chicago’s defense played reasonably well against him last season. Green Bay averaged 27.1 points per game, but it only scored 23 and 21 in 2012. It won’t necessarily take an explosion from the offense to claim a victory.
Trestman was brought on to fix the offense, so that should make this more of a series than it’s been in years. Look for Chicago to win at least one.
Bottom line: Split, 1-1
Overall Bottom Line
The Bears will go 4-2 in the NFC North, good enough for second place to Green Bay. Expect them to secure a wild card, their first playoff berth since 2010.
*All statistics courtesy of NFL.com.
**Kellen Davis' name mistakenly appeared in the article rather than Martellus Bennett's. The mistake was corrected on 5/31.