Well, it's official: The NFC North is wide open and there for the taking for at least three teams. At 2-6 and coming off a bye week, the Chicago Bears are getting healthier and may be ready to make a run at a suddenly winnable division.
Coming off a big win against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 8, the Bears could finally be realizing their potential, especially if they stay healthy. The schedule gets softer in the second half of the season and it's conceivable the Bears could win five games or more down the stretch.
It’s still unlikely the Bears can make a serious playoff push but even a 5-3 finish to the season could spark some optimism and key development heading into 2017.
Here are five things to watch for in Sunday’s matchup against the 3-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Cutler was the hot topic of conversation last week and after a strong outing, he will remain in this top spot. Against the Vikings, Cutler went 21-of-30 for 252 yards, 1 TD and no turnovers, while showing emotion and fire both on and off the field.
If the Bears are going to finish strong, Cutler must continue to play at a high level. With Kyle Long and Josh Sitton on the mend, along with a strong rushing attack and consistent play calling, these next eight games will decide whether or not Cutler will be back in Chicago next season, or whether he'll be looking to sign a free-agent deal elsewhere.
Turnovers and consistency will always be a question for Cutler but if he plays anywhere near the level he did after shaking off the rust against Minnesota, this Bears offense could see a sizable turnaround starting this weekend.
Week 8 was something special for Jordan Howard, as he racked up 202 yards from scrimmage, 153 of which came on the ground.
It's very clear that Howard is the Bears’ future at running back. Even if he struggles at the start of a game, leave him in there and let him get going. This is something that will be tested as the season progresses, especially with Chicago's coaching staff still espousing the value of a committee backfield, but Howard has shown everything you want in a three-down back.
Despite Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey both being healthy, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains needs to show faith in Howard, even if he endures a slow start.
This week, the Bears are facing Tampa Bay's 25th-ranked rushing defense, which is currently surrendering 118 yards per game. Another big week could be in store for Howard and this Bears offense if Loggains commits to the ground game and his rookie running back.
Return to Health
Since the 2011 season, the Bears have been continuously marred by injuries to key players. The number of injuries over the past two seasons has been borderline egregious and, to this point, 2016 has been no different.
Yet the bye week did this team good. The Bears are expected to have a long list of starters back in action on Sunday, including Pro Bowl guards Josh Sitton and Kyle Long, NT Eddie Goldman, WR Eddie Royal and CB Bryce Callahan.
Pernell McPhee came off PUP two weeks ago, Jay Cutler returned last week and WR Marquess Wilson is close to returning, as his 21-day practice window was officially opened this week.
At 2-6, there is little margin for error but this banged-up squad is getting healthy at the right time to make things interesting down the stretch. While depth at certain positions has stepped up and filled in well, getting five starters back could make a big impact moving forward.
Offensive Play Calling
Loggains has been the topic of conversation to start the year and, to put it bluntly, it hasn’t been for anything good.
The team currently ranks 31st in the league in points per game (16.4) and 15th in overall yards per game (355.4).
The return of Cutler last week yielded a dominant offensive performance and 20 points against one of the best defenses in the league. In order for Chicago's offense to continually progress, they will need to find balance in play calling, which falls on Loggains.
Against Minnesota, the offense ran 60 total plays. The run/pass ratio was split nearly down the middle, with the Bears rushing 29 times for 158 yards against a defense that came into the game allowing just 84 rushing yards per game.
In their first win of the season against the Detroit Lions, they executed a similar approach, rushing for 115 yards and running the ball on 29 of 65 offensive snaps.
It seems clear what needs to be done offensively, especially with a quarterback like Cutler who is more prone to turnovers than Brian Hoyer. If Loggains can continue to keep the play calling balanced, the offense should continue to score more points.
Currently, Chicago's defense ranks 11th in the league with 20 total sacks, which is quite impressive after a slow start.
The big reason for the increased success? Health, namely with McPhee and rookie Leonard Floyd, who has 3.0 sacks in his past two games. Health will continue to be a big key for this defensive unit but this time, it looks to be trending in the right direction.
This week, they could get their anchor on the defensive line back in Eddie Goldman, which should help add to their pass rush as well. Goldman will provide an immediate boost alongside Akiem Hicks, who had 2.0 sacks against the Vikings. Jonathan Bullard and Cornelius Washington have also played well of late, with each generating pressure at 3-technique.
This pass-rush unit is something to monitor this week against a Buccaneers offensive line that has given up 18 sacks through eight games. With an ailing and undependable Bears secondary, a consistent and disruptive pass rush will be key to a successful outing on defense.
A Few Thoughts
- Just how healthy are the Bears cornerbacks? Callahan and Tracy Porter should back this week but there's little depth behind them. Deiondre Hall (ankle) continues to miss valuable development time.
- If Marquess Wilson is activated before Sunday’s game, how will that affect the targets of Cameron Meredith and Eddie Royal? Meredith has been very quiet the past few weeks, after posting back-to-back 100-yard outings in Weeks 5-6.
- This has been a two-week span of improbability, hasn’t it? After seeing shocking current events transpire, is 7-1 or 8-0 coming for the Bears? Only time will tell.