Cutler, Bears set to challenge Green Bay for NFC North title
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Every season in the NFL there is at least one team that makes a playoff run that no one saw coming.
Last season, 'Riverboat Ron' led the Carolina Panthers to 12 victories and the second seed in the NFC playoff picture. You can also add the Kansas City Chiefs to that list, who rode a career year from quarterback Alex Smith to an 11-5 record and postseason appearance.
This season, it will be the Chicago Bears that surprise.
The Bears' last post-season appearance four years ago came largely through an excellent defense. This season, it will be because of their offense led by head coach Marc Trestman.
The obvious lightning rod of the Bears' offense is quarterback Jay Cutler, but let's step away from him for the moment and just look at his surrounding talent.
The strength of this team lies in its wide receivers. In his first two seasons with the Bears, Brandon Marshall has totaled 218 catches for 2,803 yards and 23 touchdowns -- and he might not even be the best receiver on the team.
In just his second year in the NFL, and despite not starting two games, Alshon Jeffery caught 89 passes for over 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. Both Marshall and Jeffery are at least 6-foot-3, which meshes well with Cutler's affinity for throwing "go-up-and-grab-it" balls in the air.
The Bears also signed Santonio Holmes to give some depth to their receiver core. There are definitely concerns with the 5-foot-11 former Super Bowl MVP due to recent injury woes and questions about his character, but, if he's healthy and focused, Holmes is a dynamite third option.
Chicago will also be looking for a repeat of running back Matt Forte's performance last year, in which he played all 16 games for the first time since 2010. Forte is an explosive runner, rushing for a career-best 1,339 yards last season, and also has a knack for making plays in the receiving game. Still just 28-years old -- the same age as Marshawn Lynch and three months younger than Adrian Peterson – the former Notre Dame star still figures to have a lot left in the tank.
In case Forte does have to miss time, the Bears drafted Ka'Deem Carey in the fourth round. Carey set University of Arizona rushing yards and touchdown records in his last season with the team and was a consensus All-American, despite being suspended for the first game of the season.
There is even optimism surrounding the Bears' offensive line, which has been a storyline for all the wrong reasons with this team seemingly forever. All five starters from last year are back, including promising right guard Kyle Long who was a Pro-Bowler in his rookie season.
The offensive line is perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle, because keeping Cutler upright has been a struggle ever since he stepped foot in Chicago. Last year was an improvement, as Cutler was sacked 19 times in the 11 games he played, on pace for 28 over a full 16-game season which would have been the lowest total in his career as a Bear.
The bad news is he still got hit too much. Cutler hurt his groin after being sacked for a franchise-record 158th time in Week seven against the Washington Redskins and had to miss multiple games. In Week 10 against the Lions, Cutler was hit again and injured his ankle which kept him out until Week 15.
Everyone's got an opinion on Jay Cutler, but he's largely proven himself to be a solid quarterback. Last season he had the 10th highest quarterback rating of signal callers that threw over 300 attempts -- higher than Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. He was also tied with Russell Wilson in completing 63.1 percent of his passes.
The weaknesses with this team lie on the defensive side of the ball -- which is interesting given the organization's penchant for excellent defenses. But it's true; there are either age or ability concerns at every position group on the defense.
The Bears will be leaning on a lot of players reaching the wrong side of 30; Jared Allen, Jeremiah Ratliff, Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams and Charles Tillman are all at least 32-years old and that's nearly half of the starting defensive unit.
The production hasn't necessarily dipped too far to warrant any serious concern just yet, however. Tillman is just two seasons removed from what was arguably his best ever year, while Briggs recorded over 100 tackles in two straight seasons before a shoulder injury kept him out of seven games last year. For his part, Allen has posted double-digit sack totals every season since 2007 -- including a league-high 22 sacks in 2011.
Having question marks surrounding your defense is not a particularly good thing in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson. However, if Chicago can squeeze out one more productive year from the old guys, as well as get big-time contributions from newcomers Lamarr Houston and Ryan Mundy, Chicago should be able to fend off Green Bay for the NFC North title.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo