Coming off of their fourth consecutive win, the Chicago Bears find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt. The Bears, who lost three of their first five games, have received major contributions from some key veteran players.
After some early struggles, the offense has had more success through the first 10 weeks of the season. The offensive line play has improved drastically, culminating in a zero-sacks-allowed performance in Week 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
NFL pundits have been warning fans of the Bears' aging defense coming into 2011, but after some poor performances early on, they look like the great Bears defenses of the mid-2000's. Their six takeaways during the 37-13 win over the Detroit Lions was one of the more dominant defensive performances in the NFL this year.
One of the Bears' consistent strengths during Lovie Smith's time in Chicago has been their special teams play. 2011 has been no different, as special teams coach Dave Toub continues to plug in new players successfully, such as new Bear, Sam Hurd. The typically excellent Devin Hester and Robbie Gould have ensured the Bears another great season on special teams.
Here are my nominees and winners of the Bears' first-half MVP awards on offense, defense and special teams.
Jay Cutler, who was under pressure more often than not this season, has quietly put in a solid performance for the Bears. When given time to pass, such as during the Bears' 30-24 win over the Eagles in Week 9, Cutler has shown off his strong and accurate arm, while leading the team to four straight victories through the first nine games.
Cutler arguably had his best performance against the Eagles, throwing for 202 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
During one of the Bears' worst performances of the year, their 24-13 loss to the Lions during Week 5, Cutler managed to fight through constant pressure and broken plays on his way to 249 yards passing yards with one touchdown.
With the offensive line starting to come around, Cutler should continue to have success in 2011.
As usual, the Bears have faced numerous challenges this year on their offensive line. During a Week 2 loss to the New Orleans Saints, just about every play in the second half was a jailbreak, with the Saints bringing constant blitzes and pressure.
During the game, the Bears lost their rookie right tackle, Gabe Carimi, to injury. Right guard Lance Louis, who missed that game due to an injury suffered in Week 1, would eventually fill in.
The Bears' seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft, Louis has given the Bears much needed consistency on the right side of the line while Carimi undergoes his second procedure this year on his right knee.
Louis has played well blocking for Cutler, as well as helping create space for Matt Forte, who is on his way to having a career year.
With Louis a steady presence on the right side, the Bears can ease Carimi back into the starting lineup when he's fully healthy. If Louis continues to block well for Cutler and the Bears, Carimi might be waiting in the wings a little while longer.
With 1,241 yards from scrimmage through Week 10, Matt Forte has been making his case for getting top money at the end of the season. Forte has put in an All-Pro performance despite ongoing contract negotiations with the Bears front office.
Forte, who has gained 805 yards rushing through nine games, is also the Bears' leading receiver by a wide margin with 41 receptions.
Forte's worth to the Bears is obvious as he gets the bulk of the offensive workload. In the era of running back-by-committee, Forte is a rare talent who can not only shoulder most of his team's targets, but continue to remain healthy.
When the Bears were struggling to find their way on offense, it was Forte who was snapping off long runs and giving the Bears some consistency on the ground.
While it's unsure if the Bears will reward Forte's years of consistent excellence with a new contract, Forte stands to make millions next year, even if it's the result of the Bears giving Forte the franchise tag.
Matt Forte is the Bears' clear-cut MVP on offense through the first half of the 2011 season.
While he was arguably the Bears' best player on defense in 2010, defensive end Julius Peppers got off to a slow start in 2011. Peppers is called on to basically be the Bears' entire pass rushing game, so when he is quiet, opposing quarterbacks have plenty of time to pass.
Oddly enough, after suffering a knee injury during the Bears' Week 5 loss to the Lions, Peppers has returned to form, picking up four sacks in the Bears' last four games.
Not coincidentally, with Peppers applying consistent pressure the last few games, the Bears defense has been the driving force during their four-game winning streak.
Peppers set the tone for the Bears' blowout 37-13 win over the Lions in Week 10. On the first series of the game, Peppers demolished Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, leading to a Brian Urlacher fumble recovery. On the next series, Peppers kept the heat on Stafford and defended a pass.
For the Bears to have continued success in the second half of 2011, Julius Peppers needs to continue to bring it on Sundays.
Another Bear who has been pleading his case for a new contract, linebacker Lance Briggs has enjoyed a great season, despite his contract demands not being met by the Bears.
Briggs, who has been selected to six Pro Bowls, continues to play at a high level alongside Bears star linebacker, Brian Urlacher.
The Bears aging defense was supposed to be slowing down in 2011, but between Urlacher and Briggs, the Bears linebacker corps continues to be one of the best and fastest in the NFL.
Through Week 10, Briggs has 68 tackles, one interception, a forced fumble and three defended passes, two of which led to Bears interceptions.
While Briggs may never see a resolution to his contract, which has three years remaining, he continues to play as if he were the league's top paid linebacker.
Bears cornerback Charles Tillman continues to be one of the more underrated defensive backs in the league. In his ninth season, Tillman has still yet to make the Pro Bowl, but his play in 2011 may change that.
Tillman, who usually is matched up with opposing team's top wideouts, has silenced some pretty strong receivers this year with his physical play.
While notching 56 tackles on the season, along with one interception and two forced fumbles, Tillman has been a physical presence in the Bears secondary. The Bears have needed that consistency in 2011, as their opening day safeties have given way to a rookie and second-year defensive back.
Playing like it's 2005, Brian Urlacher has once again turned back the clock on his career. Urlacher continues to be one of the league's top linebackers, despite playing in his 12th season.
Despite the Bears' early season struggles on defense, with Urlacher's leadership and excellent play, the Bears once again are emerging as one of the league's best defenses.
Through the first nine games, Urlacher has made 61 tackles while recovering two fumbles. He has also intercepted three passes, and defended seven on the year.
While his speed and tackling ability continue to cause problems for opposing offenses, Urlacher has shown that age in the NFL is sometimes irrelevant.
With the Bears riding a four-game winning streak, the Bears defense begins and ends with Urlacher in the middle.
In 2011, Robbie Gould has continued to show why he is one of the league's best kickers, as well as the most accurate kicker in league history.
Gould has made 20 field goals on 22 attempts this season. His accuracy and knack for making kicks during important moments continue to make him indispensable to the Bears.
Gould came up big in one of the Bears' most important wins this season. During their 30-24 victory over the Eagles, Gould made three field goals in as many attempts, including a 51-yarder. His 12 points were vital to the Bears come-from-behind victory.
Gould is mostly likely taken for granted by many Bears fans, but when he eventually calls it a career, his consistency and accuracy will be greatly missed.
Not surprisingly, Devin Hester is the Bears' first-half MVP on special teams. Hester, who has racked up weekly special teams awards routinely in his career, is having one of his best years; rivaling his amazing debut season in 2006.
Through the first nine games of 2011, Hester has returned two punts for touchdowns, while scoring one touchdown on a kickoff.
He continues to give the Bears the field possession edge with his amazing returns. Even when he doesn't run one back for a score, he routinely gives the Bears offense a great head start.
Hester is currently averaging 20 yards per punt return after his stellar performance in Week 10 against the Lions.
As NFL teams continue to kick in Hester's direction, he continues to make them pay. In the first half of 2011, Hester has continued to add to his special teams legacy as the best return man in NFL history.