Reviewing the Chicago Bears at their bye:
Seven-game capsule: The Bears are over .500 after a tough early schedule. Five of their games have come against opponents that currently have winning records. Their offense is still working to maintain a winning formula, and coaches continue to look for their optimum defensive alignment. But Devin Hester is providing elite impact on special teams and the Bears will enter the second half of the season as a playoff contender.
MVP: Matt Forte is on pace to produce one of the best all-around seasons for a running back in NFL history. He leads the league with 1,091 all-purpose yards, ranking third with 672 rushing and first among running backs with 419 receiving yards. He has accounted for nearly half of the Bears' total offense and is having a career year as his contract approaches expiration. Most importantly, Forte remains remarkably durable. He has now started every Bears game since he was drafted in 2008, a streak of 55 consecutive games.
Runner-up: I'm torn here between center Roberto Garza and defensive end Julius Peppers. In his 11th NFL season, Garza has made a relatively seamless shift to a more difficult position, averting a crisis following the departure of longtime starter Olin Kreutz. Garza probably won't receive any Pro Bowl votes and might not finish his career at center, but by all accounts he has made a credible showing on short notice. Peppers, meanwhile, has a modest four sacks in seven games. But close observers can measure his impact by watching what the Detroit Lions did to the Bears defense when Peppers left with a knee sprain. He wasn't on the field for Calvin Johnson's 73-yard touchdown reception or Jahvid Best's 88-yard scoring run in Week 5.
Biggest surprise: Initially I planned to suggest that the apparent decline of safety Chris Harris would qualify as the Bears' top surprise. But we covered that topic earlier Thursday after the Bears pulled off a bigger surprise by releasing him. So I'll go with the production of undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher, who ranks second among NFL rookie with three touchdown receptions. His 19 total catches ranks fifth among rookies. Sanzenbacher has limited the damage that might have occurred following the Week 2 loss of receiver Earl Bennett, a favorite of quarterback Jay Cutler.
Biggest disappointment: The Bears opened the season seemingly oblivious to the successful offensive formula that propelled them to the NFC Championship Game in 2010. Through three games, they were calling a higher percentage of pass plays than any other NFL team. Given Forte's presence and a shaky pass-blocking scheme, it's hard to fathom what offensive coordinator Mike Martz was thinking. It's especially notable that it took a public plea from Cutler to shake up Martz's thinking. The Bears' offense is at its best when it doesn't face obvious passing situations.
Stat to note: Forte ranks No. 37 in the NFL in the percentage of his total rushing yards that have come after contact (43 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's not a knock on Forte as much as it is a credit to the Bears' run blocking. It means Forte has gained 383 of his 672 total yards before a defender has touched him.
Looking ahead: If the Bears are going to challenge for a playoff spot, they should win at least two of their next three games. With matchups at the Philadelphia Eagles and then at home against the Lions and San Diego Chargers, the Bears could win all three. The NFC playoff race is wide open, but now is the time for the Bears to make their move.