Hopes are high for the Bears and their fans for 2014. The offense should improve upon what was the best unit ever for the franchise; the defense, the weakest spot last season, has several new players and should regain form to something that resembles what the team is used to.
For the most part fans are sold on the Marc Trestman and Phil Emery brain trust. The coach and GM have shown that they have what it takes to put a team together, and 2014 should be a make or break year as far as people believing they can get it done. Emery has had two full years and Trestman one to get their programs integrated and meshing, and it's time for the Bears to get results when it counts and get back to the postseason.
In the National Football League that last task is no small one and will not be simple, especially in the talent-loaded NFC conference.
The NFC is loaded with talented teams with the New Orleans Saints, who defeated the Bears last season 26-18; the up and coming Philadelphia Eagles, who clobbered the Bears 54-11; and the Green Bay Packers, who have been the hump that the Bears cannot seem to get over when it matters most. Perhaps the biggest hurdle that the Bears face on their quest for postseason success, outside of the Packers, is the stacked NFC West.
Last year the NFC West had three 10-win teams and an ever-improving St. Louis Rams squad, who smacked the Bears around in a 42-21 win last season. The NFC West is without a doubt the toughest division in the league at the moment, especially when it's noted that they have the reigning Super Bowl champions in the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks are a talented team top to bottom with one of the top cornerbacks in the league in Richard Sherman, one of the better young quarterbacks in the game in playmaker Russell Wilson, and a pounding ground game led by Marshawn Lynch. They also have the best safety tandem in the NFL with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, and sack specialists Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
The Bears get a chance to go on the road to Seattle this Friday and put to the test, for just a little bit, how close they are to hanging with a team of the Seahawks' caliber.
The third preseason game is the closest to a regular season game; it is the dress rehearsal. Starters typically play into the third quarter and teams take it a little more seriously. Former NFL coach Denny Green would tell you that no one takes it as B.S. The third preseason game is an important test for a football team and the Bears should certainly treat it as such.
How will the Bears' offense fare against the league's best defense? Will the Bears' new-look defensive line be able to slow down Russell Wilson, who famously burned this defense while it was still considered in the league's top half? In fact, I would argue that the 2012 Seahawks game was the turning point for the Bears defense that started the decline that showed up on the field for 17 weeks last year.
Typically, patience and short memories are preached in the preseason. "Take everything was a grain of salt," "it's meaningless," these can be said of the first two games and certainly the fourth preseason, but not so much of the third.
That being said, the third game isn't an end-all be-all either. Game planning will likely be at a minimum still, offenses and defenses will continue to be more on the side of conservative, but it is still the longest look we'll get at starting units and, while the panic button should not be pushed until the games count, there would certainly be reasons to restrain excitement if the defense surrenders big plays and the offense is grounded on Friday.
This will be the biggest test for the Bears until Sept. 7; I hope the Bears can show that they at least have progressed a bit throughout July and August, and demonstrate that they deserve to share a field with some of the NFL's best. Because we haven't seen that in far too long in Chicago.