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Thursday, September 5, 2013
A road map back to the playoffs

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It's that time of the year when every word has been parsed and every preseason argument has been beaten into the ground like J'Marcus Webb facing a one-man rush.

The NFL season starts in earnest Sunday, and in Chicago, we know the lingo.

No matter what it's like outside, it's Bears weather. Despite the loss of Brian Urlacher and Lovie Smith, the Bears' defense will show up Sunday. And just to be crystal clear, Jay Cutler finally has a coach who understands him.

Trestman
Marc Trestman has the Bears headed in the right direction.
So it's all good, right?

Training camp went pretty well, especially given the many changes around the organization. In brief glimpses, the new-look Bears offense was tantalizing. But the consensus is this is somewhere between an 8-8 and 10-6 season. I predict the latter, 10-6 and a playoff berth. Like new coach Marc Trestman, I believe in the power of positive thinking.

Given Trestman's hand in crafting the offense, I think we're going to see more stability this season, and no late-season collapse. I'm fairly bullish on the new head coach, though I'm curious about how he will handle adversity. Will the team tune him out if things get rough? Can he really tame Cutler's basest instincts?

Of course, I don't know. No one does. But as a public service to assuage your worries and massage your gambling addiction, here's my game-by-game breakdown of what to expect this season.

Week 1: Bengals at Bears -- James Harrison is coming! I know he's not the star of the Bengals' defense, but Harrison is one of those rare NFL players with a sense of mystique because you have no idea what he's thinking or what he's going to do. It's as if Deebo came off the screen of the movie "Friday" and put on an NFL uniform. For all the good vibes coming out of Bears camp, including rare optimism about rookie O-linemen Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, Harrison and his friends are going to come at Jay Cutler is if he forgot to tuck in that chain. Prediction: Bears 20, Bengals 16 -- and Harrison and Long get into a slo-mo, "Matrix"-style brawl that would make famous Chinese movie choreographer Woo-ping Yuen blush.

Week 2: Vikings at Bears -- You want to know why the Bears aren't starting rookie phenom Jon Bostic at middle linebacker? Because of running backs like Adrian Peterson. Peterson is going to rush for 125 yards and two touchdowns, but the Bears are going to humiliate quarterback Christian Ponder with two interceptions returned for touchdowns and three sacks. Prediction: Bears 27, Vikings 17.

Week 3: Bears at Steelers -- The last time the Bears went to Pittsburgh, Brian Urlacher got destroyed at the goal line by an end-of-the-road Jerome Bettis. Now the Bears don't have Urlacher and the Steelers don't have a pound-you-to-death running back. Things change. One thing that won't change is Cutler throwing two bad picks and fuming on the sidelines. Prediction: Steelers 23, Bears 16 -- and a group of Bears fans and Steelers fans get into a brawl at the new casino over an argument about which city is Ditka's true home. Da Coach!

Jay Cutler
The Lions and Ndamukong Suh figure to make Jay Cutler uncomfortable in Week 4.
Week 4: Bears at Lions -- Cutler has lost only once at Detroit, that ugly 24-13 "Monday Night Football" defeat in 2011. The Lions, led by Ndamukong Suh, are another tough test for the offensive line, not to mention Cutler's psyche. If he's uncomfortable, everyone is uncomfortable. Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 21 -- and Cutler gets snippy after the game, making us all write "Is This Cutler's Last Stand?" or something like that.

Week 5: Saints at Bears -- If Cutler got busted leaving a small tip on a takeout order as Drew Brees did … OK, stop right there. One thing that drives me nuts is when a reporter, or a fan, gets all huffy about Cutler's reputation. "If Jay Cutler did this&" is the lamest way to start a straw-man argument, especially on Twitter. Just stop it. Jay would never do that. He doesn't even tweet anymore. Prediction: Bears 31, Saints 27 -- and you hear "Bounty-gate" 75 times during the broadcast. "What if Jay Cutler offered a bounty?"

Week 6: Giants at Bears -- Speaking of Cutler, I've heard that Eli Manning, who talks in a formal setting once a week like all quarterbacks, is also available throughout the week and is very approachable. That blows my mind. Cutler, who is great during his paid appearances on ESPN 1000's "Waddle & Silvy" show, is off-limits except during his weekly media sessions, which are typically awful. He once told a reporter he didn't have a favorite quarterback growing up. Cutler could easily charm the city's reporters with some phony bonhomie. Also, two Super Bowl rings (as Eli has) would be nice. Prediction: Giants 24, Bears 23.

Week 7: Bears at Redskins -- What if Cutler hurt his knee in a playoff game and... Prediction: Bears 31, Redskins 24.

Week 8: Bye -- Trestman, a big fan of spiritual books that espouse the power of positive thinking, manages to relax himself into transubstantiation and use his newfound powers to solve the mystery of third-and-13. Prediction: Trestman 1, Bye Week 0.

Week 9: Bears at Packers -- Cutler made his Chicago debut at night against Green Bay. You remember that one, right? He threw three interceptions in the first half. After the half ended, I looked at then-Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo, who took off his glasses and stared coldly ahead. In related news: As the Bears' QB, Cutler is 1-7 against the Packers and hasn't won in Green Bay. Prediction: Packers 27, Bears 17.

Week 10: Lions at Bears -- The Bears are 4-4, so this is a "turning point" game and certainly a "make or break" one. Unlike the last two seasons, the Bears have a chance to peak down the stretch. It starts with a throttling of Detroit, thanks to Matt Forte going off for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Forte is due for a great season, and I'm predicting some short-lived buzz for MVP. Prediction: Bears 38, Lions 14

Week 11: Ravens at Bears -- A fairly easy win over the defending Super Bowl champions, because Baltimore isn't a playoff team this year. Expect a lot of "Jay Cutler could be Joe Flacco" chatter. Prediction: Bears 25, Ravens 20.

Week 12: Bears at Rams -- It's the Civil War for the Long boys, the modern day Dukes of Charlottesville, Va. By this point, Kyle Long will either be settling in as a rookie starter or banished to the bench, where he probably would be on a team with a better line. Hopefully, we get to see him matched up against his brother, defensive lineman Chris Long, at least a few times. Prediction: Bears 27, Rams 13 -- and the Long parents finally admit which son they like more.

Week 13: Bears at Vikings -- Ponder is still terrible. Prediction: Bears 24, Vikings 13.

Week 14: Cowboys at Bears -- Rod Marinelli returns. Will his old boss be his new boss in Dallas next year? Dallas takes this one with a big day from Tony Romo. "What if Jay Cutler married an attractive blonde celebrity?" Prediction: Cowboys 24, Bears 21.

Week 15: Bears at Browns -- This is a revenge game because the Browns knocked the Bears out of the preseason playoffs. Cleveland is awful, once again. But hey, nothing like visiting in December! I'm bringing Bulls center Joakim Noah as our celebrity columnist. Prediction: Bears 37, Browns 7.

Week 16: Bears at Eagles -- There was preseason talk about Trestman being the most unpredictable coaching hire, because his head-coaching work came in Canada. But who wasn't curious to see how Chip Kelly's quick-strike attack would work in the NFL with Michael Vick? The Eagles will be humming along by this point of the season, leading the NFC East and looking for a first-round bye. The Bears fall to 9-6 after getting burned by Vick and LeSean McCoy. Prediction: Eagles 28, Bears 24.

Week 17: Packers at Bears -- Jay Cutler beats the Packers. I repeat, Jay Cutler beats the Packers -- for just the second time in his tenure here. Sound the air alarms! It's V-Jay Day in Chicago. With the win, the Bears clinch a wild-card spot in the playoffs. Prediction: Bears 28, Packers 17.

Postseason: Bears vs. ??? -- Yes, the Bears make the playoffs in Trestman's first season. Big changes will be afoot the following season, but enjoy the present.