Halfway Home

Mid-term grades are in, and if the Bears' report card looks as impressive at the end of the season as it does now, they'll be playing in the postseason for only the second time in 11 years.

At the semester, the Bears are 5-3 and hold a two-game lead in the disappointing NFC North, with a 3-0 record within the division. Critics will argue that the Bears have benefited from an easy schedule, since they have yet to defeat a team with as much as a .500 record. The combined record of the five teams they've beaten is 13-28.

There will be much tougher tests in the second semester, including the Panthers, Steelers and Falcons, who are each 6-2, and the Bucs, who are 5-3.

But the Bears host the 2-6 49ers today at noon, and they have two games remaining with the 1-7 Packers.

"It's good to be in this position at the halfway point," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We've just finished talking at halftime, and we're getting ready to come out after the half as we play San Fran."

Despite the successful start, Smith believes his team can play better in many areas in the second half.

"We've set a bar," he said. "We like what we're doing right now running the football. We know our passing game needs to improve, and it will. Defensively we like the way we play, stopping the run, getting takeaways, but we still see areas to improve, and we know that we can take it another step."

The area that has the most room for improvement is the passing game, where the Bears are No. 29 in yards and average gain, a big reason why they're also 29th in third-down efficiency and 23rd in scoring.

Rookie Mark Bradley gave a strong indication in Game Seven that he was the complement Muhsin Muhammad needed to divert double-team attention away from him. But Bradley suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee while catching five passes for 88 yards before halftime.

Now Justin Gage has to prove he's better than he was as a starter in the first three games of the season, when he caught two passes. He caught four last week, including his first TD in 23 months, but he totaled just 28 yards.

Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton has yet to develop a consistent rapport with anyone other than Muhammad and Bradley. Tight end Desmond Clark caught four passes in back-to-back games, but he's caught a total of two passes in the past two games.

Speedy but little-used wideout Bernard Berrian would have had increased opportunities because of Bradley's injury, but he suffered torn ligaments in his thumb a week before the rookie was hurt. Following surgery, Berrian is out at least another 5-6 weeks.

Bobby Wade, who tied for the team lead among wideouts last season with 42 catches, has just two receptions for 12 yards in the past five games. Bears running backs have caught 21 passes for a weak 4.0-yard average.

The 49ers pass defense ranks last in the league, so it could be an opportunity for aerial attack to get on track.


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