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The Bears Can Contend For the NFC North

Let's put it bluntly. There are lots of things that hate the Bears. Many of them are in green and yeller, but they're also in the newspapers, former quarterbacks, other former NFL players, and yeah, there's that Trent Dilfer guy too.

But Elliot Harrison of put together a case for the Bears to repeat as the NFC North champs. After you look that through, follow me past the jump where I give you my case.

The Bears got some much improved safety play in 2010, a position they've struggled to solidify since Mike Brown's departure, with the return of Chris Harris and the consistent placement of Danieal Manning. If Manning does not return, Major Wright can slip in, with Chris Conte filling Wright's former shoes. Safety play will again stay strong.

At linebacker, there is some more concern than usual. Briggs and Urlacher are still playing at their out-of-their-minds usual level (would that be in-their-minds then?). The problem here is they still need another starter-quality 'backer under contract to go with some depth. Re-signing Pisa Tinoisamoa or Nick Roach goes a long way towards filling that gap, and ideally J.T. Thomas doesn't even see the defensive side of the ball this year except in extreme instances of spelling one of the three starters.

Defensive line play will be better than it was in 2006. There, I said it. The Bears may not get 13 sacks out of Corey Wootton, but second-round pick Stephen Paea takes the place of perpetually-injured, there-then-not, first-round-pick Tommie Harris and at least provide more consistent effort. Since blasting the career of Brett Favre and twisting the icepick into the backs of Vikings' playoff chances everywhere, Wootton will see the field at both end spots spelling Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers, and it will be a three-headed monster of QB-sacking, run-stuffing glory.

Of course, cornerback is still currently kind of a weak spot, but there will still be a free agency period when a deal is done, and at the minimum, we'll see one brought in as competition.

On the offensive side, we know about Gabe Carimi, but there is still the guard hole. There are some pieces on roster, but I'd bet anything a free agent comes in and somehow wrestles away a starting spot. The receivers will have a second year under the Martzfense to learn, and so will Jay Cutler. And let's not forget Todd Collins is not on the team anymore. That's a positive.

And there's always that Matt Forte, and some other guy... What's his name, something about a return touchdowns record... Hm, maybe a field goal return... Oh, right, Devin Hester.

But let's look at some other factors. The six games in the North, well, we know what those consist of - two each against the Packers, Lions and Vikings. If Green Bay actually stays healthy, they'll be the "favorites" to take the division, but the Vikings are down to deciding between Christian Ponder and Joe Webb at quarterback - I wouldn't like those odds starting the season... - and the Lions are improved, but it was a lot of enhancing strengths and ignoring weaknesses. The Bears could rip through the division at 5-1 again. Then again, so could the Packers. 

The rest of the schedule is the NFC South, the AFC West, Seattle and Philly, which at this point both are like divisional games anyway. Seattle doesn't scare anyone at this point, especially with Matt Hasslebeck gone, and Philly had better hope Vick can hold it together for his 14 games this season. The NFC South is tough and the Bears get the Falcons and Saints right off the bat followed by the Packers, but if the Bears can weather the storm of those games (horrible pun not intended...), things calm down, as the Bears later get the two toughest AFC West games at Soldier Field. 

It's easy to point out the times the Bears "got a gift," "lucked out," or whatever, but bad teams don't win 11 games and get to the NFC Championship Game. No, bad teams are marching to the podium in late April and drafting Cam Newton. Stats can say you're a bad team when you're not. The Bears were 30th in offense? Even considering that usually rushing the ball leads to fewer total yards than passing and after week 8, the Bears were doing a lot of rushing, okay, the offense wasn't great. Does that mean the team wasn't? Say that to the fourth-best scoring defense in the league.

Most importantly, the 400-pound gorilla in the room is that defense, a unit that gave up a measly 17.9 points per game, fourth best in the NFL. No team has given up so few points and had a losing record since the 2006 Dolphins. [emphasis mine]

If the defense keeps the team in a game, the offense just has to do enough. Is that not the epitome of "team," one side picking up the slack when the other side falters? And let's not forget Philly, where the Bears bolted out ahead early and, when Philly scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, they still weren't leading; the New York Jets shootout game in the snow; and Seattle, who after curbstomping the Saints in a shootout lost to the Bears 35-24 in the team's best all-around effort of the season.

Last year, the Bears were a good team. This year, they can be one again.