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Bears just might be Super Bowl-bound

WashingtRedskins v Chicago Bears

Washington Redskins v Chicago Bears

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Updated: October 4, 2012 6:20AM



Will Lovie Smith be holding the Lombardi Trophy or looking for a job at the end of the 2012 season? 

Either of those extremes is a real possibility as the Bears prepare for their season opener Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts at Soldier Field. With a retooled offense designed for Jay Cutler to succeed — specifically the addition of big wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and Mike Tice replacing Mike Martz as offensive coordinator — the Bears are well-equipped to win with offense. Pending the health of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher — he has not practiced since July 31 but insists he’ll be ready to go against the Colts — their defensive core is intact, with Urlacher,  linebacker Lance Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers coming off Pro Bowl seasons. 

But as the Bears learned painfully last season, it’s a fine line. One moment, they were on their way to 7-3 with a five-game winning streak and were arguably the strongest challenger to the unbeaten Green Bay Packers in the NFC. The next moment, their playoff hopes were — as it turned out — doomed. 

The 2012 season has an even greater variance. The Bears could be among the top contenders for the NFC championship. But if Urlacher breaks down and any of several other key factors doesn’t work out, they could miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, which could convince first-year general manager Phil Emery to replace Smith to get the Bears back on track for 2013.

So the optimism of Bears fans is warranted. But so is the pessimism. Where do you stand? Take this test to find out. 

Rate these categories, with 10 points for an optimistic vote, minus-10 for a pessimistic vote and zero for a neutral vote. 

MATT FORTE

Optimist: Unburdened by contract talk and fully recovered from a knee injury, a rejuvenated, motivated Forte will be the best all-around running back in football, a team leader and an all-around good guy. 

Pessimist: Mentally exhausted from more than a year of worrying and whining about his contract, a weary, wealthy Forte will struggle with a less prominent role in a Jay Cutler/Brandon Marshall-dominated offense and play most of the year at less than 100 percent.

BRIAN URLACHER

Optimist: Playing fewer snaps because of a better offense and several fourth-quarter blowouts, the eight-time Pro Bowler will continue to get better with age and experience on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Pessimist: Still feeling the effects of a Week 17 knee injury that was more serious than the Bears said, Urlacher, 34, will be hampered early in the season, lash out at criticism that he’s ‘‘over the hill’’ and ‘‘overrated’’ and take a precipitous fall toward retirement.

BEARS’ OFFENSE

Optimist: With Jay Cutler in his prime, big targets in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, versatile running back Matt Forte, an O-line better than anyone expects and Mike Tice playing to his strengths, the Bears will thrill the nation with their best offense since the 1940s.

Pessimist: With Cutler and the offense adjusting to a new system, new receivers, a new right tackle and Tice and Jeremy Bates struggling to define their roles, the Bears won’t click until the meaningless last three games — just in time to instill hope for 2013.

BEARS’ DEFENSE

Optimist: Playing with the wind at its back thanks to a high-powered offense will reinvigorate Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman and allow youngsters Shea McClellin, Chris Conte and Major Wright to blossom.

Pessimist: Still having to carry the team as the offense adjusts to Mike Tice, Peppers, Urlacher, Briggs and Tillman will show their age, with the chain reaction and constant questions and criticism pushing Lovie Smith’s defense over the proverbial cliff and into the ‘‘start-from-scratch’’ abyss. 

SHEA McCLELLIN

Optimist: With his speed, athleticism and ability to play almost anywhere, the multidimensional rookie will give the defense a shot of rejuvenation it badly needs. 

Pessimist: Not nearly as ready to be a hand-on-the-ground defensive end as Lovie Smith told us, the rookie from Boise State will be a bad fit anywhere on the field, either too slow, too small, too big or too inexperienced to make an impact. 

GABE CARIMI

Optimist: Fully recovered from a knee injury, the 2011 first-round pick will step right into Mike Tice’s offense and give the Bears a Pro Bowl-quality anchor at right tackle that allows the rest of the line to fall neatly into place.

Pessimist: Playing at full-tilt for the first time in nearly a year, Carimi will be rusty early and aggravate his previous injury or suffer a new one, creating limbo at right tackle that will prevent the line from establishing the anchor and continuity it needs.

ALSHON JEFFERY

Optimist: Nurtured by a veteran offensive group and a Pro Bowl quarterback, the quiet, humble wide receiver from South Carolina will thrive in the red zone and emerge as a Rookie of the Year candidate with a 1,000-yard season and 20-plus yards per catch.

Pessimist: After thriving in the casual environment of training camp, the bashful, soft-spoken Jeffery will be overwhelmed by the intensity of the regular season, crumble under criticism for an early drop or two and struggle silently and miserably through a difficult rookie season.

JAY CUTLER

Optimist: Finally in a comfort zone with Brandon Marshall, QBs coach Jeremy Bates, another big receiver in Alshon Jeffery and an OC who will protect him, a more mature, less quirky Cutler will blossom into the elite QB everyone expected.

Pessimist: The easily annoyed Cutler will be consumed by high expectations, distracted by his weekly radio show and fatherhood, try too hard to re-establish the Marshall connection and finish with the same 8-8 record his team had the last time he was in that comfort zone.

BRANDON MARSHALL

Optimist: Buoyed by an inner peace after years of volatile personal issues, a strong, resolute Marshall will reach superstar status and become the best Bears wide receiver since Harlon Hill.

Pessimist: Hindered by an inner peace that has robbed him of the edge that made him ‘‘The Beast,’’ a docile, reticent Marshall will struggle early, lash out at the inevitable criticism and be the most disappointing wide-receiver acquisition since Muhsin Muhammad.

JULIUS PEPPERS

Optimist: Motivated by constant questions about why Jared Allen beat double teams for 22 sacks last year while he had 11, the reticent star will respond with a breakout season, approaching the 19 sacks he had in his first two years with the Bears combined.

Pessimist: No longer able to dominate with his innate athleticism, Peppers, 32, will wilt under the pressure of having to carry too much of the D-line load and get his share of sacks but not the difference-making plays the Bears are paying him to provide.

Scoring

90-100 — Lay off the Kool-Aid.

70-80 — Must be new in town.

30-60 — Realist.

20 to minus-20 — Seeing is believing.

Minus-30 to minus-40 — Sports-radio listener.

Minus-50 to minus-70 — Waiting for Ditka’s return.

Minus-80 to minus-100 — Packers fan.



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