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I have Bears going 10-6 this season, what do you predict?

Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith

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How many games will the Bears win this season?

Updated: November 9, 2011 2:02PM

I know all the reasons the Bears are supposed to experience a drop-off this season.

Their schedule is much harder than the pillow-soft one they had last year.

They went through last season without many serious injuries, and what are the odds of that happening two years in a row?

They let center Olin Kreutz walk away, and he was the best part of a bad offensive line.

There’s no way they’re going to face as many third-string quarterbacks as they did last season.

The secondary is a question mark, and on and on.

But I’ve been down this road a few times, and whenever you think Lovie Smith’s team has no business being in a discussion about the top teams in the NFL, you end up thinking wrong.

Here’s my somewhat contorted logic for 2011: If what I considered to be a mediocre Bears team finished 11-5 last year, why can’t this team, one year older and wiser, be nearly as good — or, if you prefer, nearly as mediocre?

As recently as a week ago, I thought I was being kind by thinking the Bears could finish 9-7 this season. But something has come over me. There’s a chance I breathed in the second-hand smoke of whatever the true believers are smoking. We’re all excited about the return of football, which never really left us, though it had its bags packed.

This is the time of year when a significant number of Bears fans misplace their minds and start asking where the Super Bowl is this season (Indianapolis) and when it will be played (Feb. 5) so as to put in for vacation early.

I’d like to think that the painted-face crowd hasn’t swayed me, that being around people who think the 1972 Dolphins should be very concerned about the Bears hasn’t affected my judgment. But if at any point you hear me gushing about J’Marcus Webb’s “intangibles,’’ consider me compromised.

I almost feel as if I have to apologize for this new me, given my long-running role as the Voice of Doom when it comes to the Bears. But I find myself mumbling, “Why not 10-6?”

Peace and prosperity

Much of the optimism has to do with Jay Cutler, who seems more at peace. He showed up for training camp in better shape. He’s in his second year in Mike Martz’s system, and surely that has to count for something, unless Martz turns out to be the nutty professor. Cutler seems relaxed, even with that offensive line.

And “that offensive line,’’ a target of derision, wasn’t bad in the preseason. It gave up four sacks in the first half of the first preseason game, then only allowed one sack of Cutler total in the next two games.

If Cutler isn’t carried off the field in the first three games, when that offensive line will be a credible threat to the quarterback, the Bears will be in good shape. If Cutler stays on two feet this season, he’s going to throw for 4,200 yards.

And you’re asking: Who will be on the receiving end of those 4,200 yards? Johnny Knox, who deserved better than the treatment he received in camp; Earl Bennett, who has Cutler’s confidence; Matt Forte, who’s a better receiver than he is a runner; and possibly Roy Williams, who was handed a starting job without actually earning it.

I know: a shaky offensive line and a non-elite receiver corps. What says “10-6” more than that? Well, I’m looking for a Cutler Effect to finally kick in. Great quarterbacks make everyone around them better. It’s time for that to happen.

The Bears’ core is in place — Cutler, Forte, Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Devin Hester is a core player if he’s ­returning punts. If he isn’t ­returning punts, somebody should be summarily executed.

A pulse on the sideline

If those six players stay healthy — a big, fat “if” — the Bears should be very competitive.

My era of good feelings actually extends to Smith, too. I know: Somebody check my vitals!

I wonder if anyone else noticed that he looked more animated on the sideline during the exhibition games. I don’t know what it means — whether it was a preseason thing or whether someone suggested to him that he might want to start looking more involved — but I’m positive I saw his lips moving.

If it’s true, does it make him a better coach? Yes. Communication is always a good thing. If you see Smith jabbering on the sideline Sunday against the Falcons, you’ll know something has changed.

The guess here is that the Bears’ level of success won’t change much. They’ll finish 10-6, second in the NFC North to the Packers, and earn a wild-card berth. Either this is a cry for help or somebody has taken control of my mind.

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