Lovie Smith is absolutely right when he says that, at 5-3, the Bears are in great position to make a playoff run.
Only the 6-2 Falcons and Giants have fewer losses in the NFC than the Bears, who are one of five NFC teams with three losses.
So, yes, the Bears are in the thick of the playoff race at the halfway point. But they'll have to play much better football in the second half of the season if they hope to duplicate their 5-3 mark. Starting Sunday at Soldier Field, the competition gets a lot tougher. The 3-5 Vikings, who are a lot more dangerous than their record would indicate, come to town for a showdown.
The Bears have built their 5-3 record by playing arguably the easiest schedule in the NFL.
Record-wise, the three worst teams in the NFL are the 0-8 Bills, the 1-7 Cowboys and the 1-7 Panthers. The Bears are the only team that has already played all three. Even by the end of the season, no other team will have had the good fortune to play all three of those teams. However, the Saints play Carolina twice and the Cowboys once. The Giants play the Cowboys twice and the Panthers once.
But the Bears were lucky enough to get all three of the NFL's worst teams in the first eight games. They managed to defeat all three, plus the 2-6 Lions, whom they face again Dec. 5. So, of the Bears' five victories, four have been against teams with a combined record of 4-28.
Chicago's only victory worth bragging about was a 20-17 win over the 6-3 Packers on Sept. 27.
Maybe that's why it seems there isn't quite the level of excitement around town that a 5-3 team would normally generate, and even Smith has noticed it.
"We're 5-3 right now," he said, "and a lot of times it seems like we're 2-6 or something like that."
Not even the Las Vegas oddsmakers respect the Bears. They have installed the visiting Vikings as slight favorites. That's harsh.
But the Bears won't get the respect they believe they deserve until they prove they can continue to play winning football now that the cupcake portion of their schedule has concluded.
With the possible exception of the rematch with the Lions, who are vastly improved but will be without talented young quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Bears don't play any more powder-puffs.
It starts Sunday with the Vikings.
The team that, five years ago, was defined by the "Love Boat" incident, is now more closely associated with "Mutiny on the Bounty." But despite the drama swirling around the Vikings and speculation on coach Brad Childress' job security and his hold on the players, the Vikings rose from the dead in the final five minutes Sunday and eventually stole a 27-24 overtime victory over the Cardinals. The Vikings know they probably need to sweep their two remaining games with the Bears to get back in the playoff picture.
The other five remaining games for the Bears are all against teams that are .500 or better. They're at Miami against the 4-4 Dolphins and at Green Bay against the 6-3 Packers. At home they face the 5-3 Eagles, the 6-2 Patriots and the 6-2 Jets.
That slate will determine if the Bears' record is a true barometer of their talent or a scheduling gift.
"I like our position," Smith said. "November is when that playoff run begins, and we're in pretty good shape. We just want to matter, and I think right now you can say that the Bears really matter about what is going on in our division."
For now, they do matter, but Smith and the Bears have a tough second half to navigate if they want to remain relevant.
G Chris Williams
NOTES AND QUOTES
Chris Williams' move from left tackle to left guard hasn't exactly been smooth sailing, but some bumps along the way were expected.
"He played good enough for us to win the other day [against the Bills]," offensive line coach Mike Tice said. "But it's like going from quarterback to tight end, and I know a guy who did that, and it was really tough."
The 6-7 Tice was a quarterback at Maryland before his 14-year career as an NFL tight end. Williams was drafted as a left tackle and started the season there, but he lost that job to Frank Omiyale when a hamstring injury knocked him out for three full games and most of a fourth. Learning the new position has been a project.
"It all happens faster, much faster [at guard]," Tice said. "Everything is short-stroke movements. Your footwork has to be short, your [hand] punch has to be shorter. It's a whole different body movement. You have to be more compact, you have to be in balance more and you have to know when to be aggressive and when to get back. There's just a whole lot of nuances to it.
"It's like any of us that get into something new for the first time. Each week, there are learning curves." ...
Childress says coming back to Chicago to play the Bears is just like any other road trip, even though he's got a strong connection to the area, having grown up in west suburban Aurora, where he attended Marmion Academy high school.
"They're business trips for the team and for myself," said Childress, who remains on the hot seat with the underachieving Vikings. "I don't have any interaction really with my family being from that neck of the woods. It's always nice to see the Chicago skyline and head over to Soldier Field, where I used to watch the college all-star games. But it's really NFC North football, and they happen to be an opponent. It's not like I get to spend a lot of time down on Michigan Avenue or eating Chicago-style pizza or hitting any of the Italian places or anything like that." ...
Julius Peppers remains stuck at two sacks, and he hasn't had one since Oct. 3 against the Giants.
But he leads the Bears with 12 quarterback pressures, has forced two fumbles, leads the linemen by a wide margin with 28 tackles and has opened up opportunities for teammates because he demands double-team attention from opponents.
"I've been pleased," Peppers told Minnesota reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "The [sack] numbers aren't where we would like them to be, but those things will come. Other than that, I think it's been a great season. I think it's been one of my better seasons playing the position overall, rushing and playing the run and just being active on the field." ...
In a rare plot twist, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz called for an exactly even mix of runs and passes Sunday: 31 of each.
Martz and Smith had talked for two weeks about achieving balance in the offense, but Smith reiterated that it doesn't have to be a 1-to-1 mix.
"When I say balance, I'm talking about just having a commitment to both," Smith said. "Taking what the defense gives you, but you have to be productive in both areas, and for us it was about us being able to run the ball more."
It was just the second time in eight games that the Bears ran as many times as they passed. Neither Matt Forte (49 yards on 14 carries and 12 yards on three catches) nor Chester Taylor (13 yards on 10 carries and 14 yards on one catch) were particularly effective running the ball, but they were more involved in the offense.
"That's the balance I'm talking about," Smith said, "of just being able to run effectively and pass."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"They've always been a terrific run defense, we know that. So that's a terrific challenge for us." – Offensive coordinator Mike Martz, discussing the Bears' No. 27 rushing attack, which faces the Vikings' No. 7 run defense.
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