Every year, there is an NFL team that comes seemingly out of nowhere, gets hot in the second half of the season and eeks its way into the playoffs.
In 2014, the Baltimore Ravens sat at 5-4 through nine games, then ripped off five wins in the next seven contests to earn a wildcard berth in the AFC. In 2013, the Carolina Panthers started 1-3, then went 11-1 down the stretch to secure the NFC South crown.
In 2015, will the 4-5 Chicago Bears be the team that surges in the second half and wills its way into the postseason?
Sure seems like it.
The Bears are coming off two straight wins, including yesterday's 37-13 trouncing of the Rams in St. Louis, a game that put everyone on notice.
No one expected much from the Bears this season in John Fox's first year as head coach. The club lacked talent at crucial positions, had an entirely new coaching staff and front office, and were coming off two seasons in which they allowed the most points in the NFL. After an 0-3 start, everyone had all but written the Bears off in 2015, including myself.
Yet what we didn't take into account was the quality of opponents Chicago faced to begin the season. Very few NFL teams are going to have success facing the Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks back to back to back, especially those undergoing major transitions at every level of the franchise.
The Bears emerged from the early train wreck by beating the Raiders and Chiefs, then lost close contests to the Lions and Vikings by a combined six points, and are now on another two-game win streak following victories over the Chargers and Rams.
Having won four of their last six contests, the Bears have created a buzz in Chicago.
"The whole football team is growing," head coach John Fox said after yesterday's win. "This is a new system with a lot of new players as far as relating to coaches and coaches relating to players. We are starting to know our football team better. A lot has changed over the nine weeks quite a bit. Last week was the halfway point. The way we are trending, I like the way the guys are going about their business.”
As with every NFL team, it all starts with the quarterback.
Jay Cutler is not in the MVP conversation and isn't posting guady numbers, but he's playing his smartest, most consistent football since coming to Chicago. His 64.2 completion percentage is the second highest of his career, while his 95.3 QB rating is more than six points higher than his previous best (89.2 in 2013).
Yet what stands out most is his judiciousness with the football. Throughout his career in Chicago, he's been known as a turnover machine. He threw four interceptions in his first start for the Bears and it's been downhill ever since, culminating in a league high 24 turnovers last season.
Under new offensive coordinator Adam Gase, that's no longer the case. Cutler has just five interceptions in eight starts this year and has not thrown two or more picks in any contest. By comparison, he had seven games with two or more picks in 15 starts last year. Cutler is taking what defenses give him and he's not putting the ball into harms way, which is a major step forward for a player who, previous to this season, forced Bears fans to hold their breath every time he dropped back to pass.
"He continues to kind of amaze me with what we are doing and how hard he works," said Fox. "I know he has played very well, I have said that countless times. I think he is having a very good year.”
Against the Rams, Cutler completed 19 of 24 pass attempts for 258 yards and 3 TDs. His 151.0 passer rating is the second highest by a Bears QB (minimum 10 pass attempts) since at least 1960, trailing Vince Evans' perfect 158.3 rating on December 7, 1980 versus Green Bay. Cutler's previous career-high was a 146.2 rating on November 28, 2010 vs. Philadelphia.
He threw two touchdown passes yesterday of 80-plus yards - 87 yards to TE Zach Miller and 83 yards to RB Jeremy Langford. No player in Bears history has ever thrown two 80-plus-yard TDs in the same contest. Yet somehow, Cutler found a way to be humble about his performance against the Rams - and as NFL fans are fully aware, humility is not his strongest suit.
“I don’t feel like I did that much," Cutler said. "I think the offensive line did a great job controlling the ball in the second half. I think some guys on the outside made some plays. Against a front like that and a secondary like that, very rarely are you going to get some ‘chunk’ plays like that. I think they had only given up a couple past 25 yards all year long. You’ve got to give guys on the outside credit, they didn’t back down. Up front, we knew it was going to be a physical game against a really talented team.”
Cutler has also received support from a re-shuffled offensive line that has allowed just five sacks in the past four games. But even that stat is skewed, as Cutler's heightened pocket presence, which is at an all-time high, has played a large role in the reduced sack numbers.
Even more than that, the running game has taken a lot of the burden off Cutler, who, under former head coach Marc Trestman, was asked to carry the offense on his back each and every week.
The Bears have run the ball 265 times this year (29.4 per game). That's just 90 fewer than their 16-game total last year (355). At this pace, the Bears will surpass their rushing totals from 2014 by Week 13. This balanced offensive attack has played a major role in the club's success so far.
And let's not forget about the defense, which is developing at a rapid pace under coordinator Vic Fangio. The Bears' defense has not given up more than 20 points in five of their last six contests and just held Rams RB Todd Gurley, whom many consider the next coming of Jim Brown, to just 45 yards on 12 carries.
It's even more impressive when you consider the lack of overall talent on this defense, as well as the loss of two key defensive linemen, Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson, the past month. It makes one wonder what Fangio could do with an influx of top-tier talent next season and beyond.
All of that said, there are still reasons to be cautious about the 2015 Bears. They have yet to beat a team with a winning record and are 0-3 in the NFC North.
The 7-2 Broncos come to town this week, followed by a trip to Green Bay to face the 6-3 Packers. Those are extremely tough matchups, particularly the Packers, whom the Bears have beaten just once the past five years. Those are the tests that will show us whether or not this year's Bears team is for real, or if we'll have to wait until next season to finally reap the rewards of a dramatically improved ball club.
But let's assume the Bears win the next two games, which isn't all that big of a stretch considering the recent struggles of both Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. That would put them at 6-5 and they'd face just one team with a winning record, the Vikings, in their final five games.
With the way this team is playing, that's not a ridiculous scenario to consider, and with the wide-open nature of the NFC this year, finishing 10-6 would very likely be good enough to secure a Wildcard spot.
The Bears are a team on the rise and we're about to find out just how good they are. Things just got very exciting in the Windy City.