Even when they were 2-3, the Green Bay Packers still figured to be right there battling for NFC North supremacy with the Chicago Bears at the end of the season. And after five wins in their past six games, here they are, a game behind the Bears with a Dec. 16 game at Soldier Field looming.
Which team will be at the top of the division standings at the end of the season? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will win the NFC North.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The Bears still have to prove they can defeat Green Bay before we can anoint them NFC North champions. But with a one-game lead over the Packers in the standings, the Bears hold their own destiny heading into Sunday's home game against the Seattle Seahawks. Right now, it looks as if the Bears have a good shot to win their fourth division title under Lovie Smith, but until they can find a way to knock off Green Bay, that kind of talk is somewhat premature.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. It won't be easy to beat Minnesota at its house on Dec. 9, followed by a struggling Packers squad at home on Dec. 16. But the Bears proved in the 2011 finale they could defeat the Vikings on the road, and I’'m not sure Green Bay can fix its myriad issues sufficiently enough before its meeting with the Bears. It's somewhat concerning that Chicago plays its last two games on the road at Arizona, before finishing up at Detroit. Despite Arizona's 4-7 record, a trip to the West Coast won't be easy. But then again, by then, it's likely the Cardinals would have already given up on the season. Besides, victories in the next three games could pretty much wrap up the division for the Bears. They're certainly capable of winning the next three, but they've got to get off to a good start toward accomplishing that goal Sunday against the Seahawks.
Scott Powers: Fiction. I still think it's the Packers' division to take. They weren't too impressive against the Giants, but I could see the Packers winning out. Their remaining schedule is Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Tennessee and Minnesota. If the Bears defeat Seattle on Sunday, the division likely will come down to their game with the Packers on Dec. 16 at Soldier Field. The Bears have struggled against the league’'s elite teams so far, including their early-season loss to Green Bay, so the Packers have the edge as of now.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Green Bay is going to come into Soldier Field and steal a win on Dec. 16. I took a spin through ESPN.com’'s Playoff Machine, and I had the Bears and Packers going 12-4, with Green Bay taking the tiebreaker. The Bears better hope that doesn't happen, because it could mean they travel to play the New York Giants in the first round. That spells trouble for Cutler and the Bears' chances to return to the NFC championship.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears lose nothing when Michael Bush replaces Matt Forte.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Forte is a better all-around player than Bush. That's a fact. Bush has done a great job in the red zone, but he's averaging just 3.5 yards per carry compared to Forte's 4.3. Forte is also more dangerous as a receiver coming out of the backfield. Don't get me wrong, the Bears can survive if Forte has to miss Sunday's game with an injured ankle, but to say the club loses nothing with Bush in the lineup is inaccurate.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Forte contributes more elusiveness than Bush, has posted a better yards-per-carry average (4.3) and is more of a threat to break the long run on a given attempt. Forte also gives the Bears more in the passing game. Although Bush is plenty capable of making plays in the screen game, Forte gives the Bears a more dynamic and versatile threat capable of lining up in the slot as a receiver. Forte’'s production hasn’t necessarily matched his skillset, but the struggling offensive line is the main reason for that.
Scott Powers: Fiction. Forte may not be having a Pro Bowl season, but he’'s still a step up from Bush. Forte averages more yards per carry, is more of a threat to break one and is a better receiver out of the backfield. Not to take anything away from Bush. He has had a fine season. He's been effective at the goal line and in short-yardage situations and has held his own when Forte has been banged up. He's been what the Bears hoped he would be -- a complementary back to Forte. The plan wasn't for him to be the lead back.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. They lose a chance at the “home run.” Forte has elite speed when he gets to the open field, but he hasn't gotten enough touches to really show it. Although you can also blame him, I suppose, for not doing enough with the carries he has gotten. Forte didn't have a carry over 8 yards in this last three games (he left Sunday's game in the third quarter with an injury). Bush is a viable alternative, and he's proven he's not just a bruiser with some nimble moves. I think some are a little quick to write off Forte when the offense as a whole is underachieving.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears’' offensive line will be significantly weakened by the loss of Lance Louis.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Louis was the Bears' best offensive lineman. Take away the top player from any position group and there is going to be a dropoff. Gabe Carimi's debut at guard was encouraging, but don't expect miracles from the former right tackle, or from Edwin Williams, who has made 12 career stars. Adding veteran Andre Gurode to the mix was a wise move, but none of the aforementioned linemen can even come close to replacing Louis.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. The weaknesses on the offensive line have been at the outside tackle spots manned by J’Marcus Webb and Carimi, who has since been replaced by Jonathan Scott. Inside at the guard spots, the Bears have been fairly solid all season, outside of former left guard Chilo Rachal's nightmarish performance on Nov. 19 at San Francisco. Although Louis undoubtedly performed the most consistently of everyone on the offensive line, Carimi should be able to hold his own as a starter. Carimi probably isn't as strong as Louis, but he's filled in against the Vikings and played well despite possessing no experience playing the position. With a week of preparation, Carimi should perform even better. He's not Louis, but Carimi can get the job done.
Scott Powers: Fact. Louis actually gave the Bears some consistency on the offensive line. While most of the line was a crapshoot on a weekly basis, Louis could be depended on most of the time. Take him out and then also replace him with someone accustomed to playing tackle, and the line certainly gets weaker. As much as the offensive linemen say they're confident going forward, they should be worried. The line's problems won’'t just magically go away, especially when it loses one of its best players.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears will miss Louis, who has been their most consistent lineman, but I think Carimi will figure out a way to succeed at guard. It seems like a contrarian viewpoint to say the line won’'t be “significantly weaker” without its best lineman, but when your best lineman is a right guard, you know it can't get much worse anyway. Guard is thought of as an easier position than tackle, and I think Carimi can have some better luck inside as long as his footwork is clean. I guess that's a big if, but he didn't look too bad in his first go-round at the position.
Fact or Fiction: Brandon Marshall is the Bears' MVP on offense.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Jay Cutler will get some consideration, but Marshall has been the heart and soul of the Bears' offense since the moment he stepped in the building. How can you argue with 81 catches for 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns through 11 games? Marshall is on the brink of breaking all kinds of Bears' receiving records, starting with most receptions and receiving yards in a single season. He finds a way to catch the ball despite being double and triple-teamed. If that's not the definition of an MVP, what is?
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Marshall absolutely deserves recognition as the most valuable player on offense. His 81 catches are more than the combined receptions for the Matt Forte, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester, the club's three leading receivers behind Marshall. His 1,017 receiving yards are more than the 1,009 combined receiving yards of the club’'s next four leaders Forte, Bennett, Hester rookie Alshon Jeffery and tight end Kellen Davis. While the sheer numbers have proven impressive, it’'s even more surprising Marshall has been able to generate such statistics with teams knowing every game he's the go-to option for Cutler, yet few have successfully stopped him.
Scott Powers: Fact. The Bears have never had a receiving threat like Marshall. Sure, Marcus Robinson, Marty Booker, Johnny Morris and Jeff Graham had their share of quality seasons, but none of them were nearly as talented as Marshall. For the first time in franchise history, the Bears finally have a quality quarterback and wide receiver, and Cutler and Marshall haven't disappointed. Already, Marshall has 81 receptions on 124 targets and has accumulated 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns. With other receivers struggling and the running game being inconsistent, the Bears’' offense wouldn't have a chance without Marshall.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Forget this Cutler-for-league-MVP contrarian argument. Marshall is easily the team MVP. He's not only the best wide receiver in the Bears' modern history (let's be honest, as far as talent, history), but he's also the only guy Cutler really trusts. That's nothing against Bennett, but it's pretty obvious Cutler is going to try to throw to Marshall, coverage be damned, every time he can. According to my quick math, Marshall has been targeted on 39 percent of Cutler's throws this season. And Marshall has produced, a few end zone drops aside, with 81 catches for 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns. He's the first Bears wideout to get 1,000 yards since the halcyon days of Booker. In the Bears' three losses (six quarters of which were led by Jason Campbell), Marshall caught 12 passes for 152 yards and one score.