Bears Notebook: Bears have opportunity to send message to league

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Before the 2012 season began, the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots were widely predicted to represent their respective conferences in Super Bowl XLVII. While that certainly remains a viable possibility, expectations have shifted numerous times through the first six weeks of the season.

The Packers got banged around early in the season and the Patriots were slow out of the gates. Early on it was determined that the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans, arguably, were the top teams in their conferences. Suddenly they became the favorites to reach the Super Bowl but they just recently were brought back to the pack this weekend. The 49ers — a typically physical team — were pushed around by the visiting New York Giants. Likewise, the Texans were manhandled and beaten all night by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Houston.

The one constant this season has been the Atlanta Falcons, but despite being the lone remaining undefeated team at 6-0, they really have not earned the respect and distinction of being considered the best team in the NFL.

It seems every year, the NFL is slowly inching toward former commissioner Pete Rozelle’s dream scenario of all teams finishing 8-8. Sure, there are exceptions to that rule every year and an all-.500 league sounds virtually impossible, but it seems no team wants to step up and take the crown as the NFL’s best, outside of the Falcons.

This, of course, opens the door for the Bears to make a statement.

At 4-1, the Bears have the fourth-best winning percentage in the NFL behind the Falcons, Texans, and Ravens. Their 78-point differential between points scored and points given up is best in the NFL. Their defense has scored five touchdowns and their points per game is second in the NFL behind the Patriots.

Skeptics will point out that three of the Bears opponents have been the Colts, Rams, and Jaguars, but a team can only play who is on their schedule and the Bears were able to make short work of those teams by a combined score of 105-30.

Divisional foe Detroit figures to give the Bears a game next Monday night, but aside from that, the Bears don’t have a legitimate opponent until they play the Texans and 49ers in back-to-back prime time appearances on Nov. 11 and Nov. 19.

The Bears ought to be 7-1 when they do face the Texans and it’s perfectly reasonable to have such high expectations because they truly are a better team than their next three opponents.

Now is the time when the Bears can build up some momentum that might be able to carry them to a victory against the Texans or 49ers. And now is the time to make a statement to the league.

Division got a little more even

Prior to Week 6, the Bears and Vikings sat tied atop the NFC North with the Packers and Lions trailing them, but after a Vikings loss to the Redskins this week and victories by the Packers over the Texans and the Lions over the Eagles, the screws just got tightened a bit in the division. I think this notion that the Packers were done and buried was a false one to begin with. Sure, they’ve had their troubles protecting Rodgers and the quarterback had been unusually erratic this season. But Sunday night’s dominating performance against one of the league’s best — on the road, no less — should have put that myth to bed. As for the Lions, their victory was more a product of the Eagles gift-wrapping it for them. The Eagles were up by 10 with little more than three and a half minutes to play in the fourth quarter and seemingly in control of the game. But the Philly defense got too soft and the offense stopped functioning altogether and the Lions came back and won the game in overtime. Whatever the case may be, it should be an interesting season for one of the best and toughest divisions in football.

Have to close the gap between the offense and defense

The Bears are sitting pretty in first place after six weeks; this much we know. But we also know that the defense has been playing at incredible heights during their win streak. It’s just highly improbable — I’ll never say anything is impossible — that the Bears defense can continue scoring touchdowns every week. And as such, the offense will need to step up its game to match the level of its counterparts. I’m not talking about racking up 501 yards of offense against a team as bad as the Jaguars, either. We need to see what the offense can do on the road in hostile territory when the offensive line has its hands full like they did against the Packers in Week 2. That’ll be the litmus test to let us know how “for real” the Bears are, because the defense can’t carry the offense all season.

Special teams needs to join the party

Kudos to the special teams for preventing opponents from obtaining good field position. Everyone from Robbie Gould and his impressive touchback ratio all the way down to the coverage units are doing their jobs by giving the offense and defense good field position with which to work. But it’s about time the return teams step it up to join the fun. There have been a handful of returns on kickoffs and punts where Devin Hester has been one block or missed tackle away from taking it for a touchdown, but there have also been many instances where Hester has resorted to “ridiculous” lateral running and spin moves in a vain attempt to pick up yardage. I understand that not every return is going to gain significant yardage — or even any yardage. But the blockers need to get a little bit more nasty and make sure they always lay a body or helmet on somebody. After all, Hester only needs a small crease and he can make potential tacklers miss with a simple change of direction.

Smith deserves lengthy contract … later

The hot topic of last week’s bye was whether head coach Lovie Smith deserves a contract extension and whether the front office should do so now in order to prevent Smith’s price from going through the roof should the Bears have a great playoff run. Here’s the bottom line: Smith is one of the winningest head coaches currently active in the NFL. And running down the list of other coaches in the league, the amount of franchises that have unproven coaches fumbling at what they’re doing is astounding. The glass-is-half-empty pessimists out there will point to the fact that the Bears have just one playoff appearance in the last five years, but I encourage those fans to name how many playoff teams during that span that the Bears were more talented than. You can take as much time as you want, but I’ll save you the research and give you the answer: very few. No, the 12 best teams in the league do NOT make the playoffs each year. But the majority of playoff teams are in fact the most talented. And the fact remains that the person most responsible for supplying the Bears with personnel talent — former general manager Jerry Angelo — was properly identified as the problem and was dismissed after last season. With good players at his disposal, Smith should be able to take his team to the playoffs. Only then can we determine what kind of coach he is with a talented roster in the postseason. And if he succeeds, then you give him a contract extension — with enough years on it to allow him to rebuild with the younger players that new GM Phil Emery supplies him with.

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