Bill Huber: Let's start with the big picture first before getting into more detail. The vibe around the league – not by insiders but fans and hacks like me, who just don't have time to study the rest of the league – is that the Bears are the luckiest team in the league. A couple bad calls against Detroit. A few third-string quarterbacks. So, are the Bears a legit contender?
John Crist: I don't know if it's fair to say the Bears are the luckiest team in the league and that's the lone reason why they're 11-4, but, yes, coach Lovie Smith and Co. have enjoyed their fair share of breaks in 2010 – mostly with regard to injuries. It's incredible how many times the Bears have practiced in November and December with their entire 53-man roster available and at full strength, plus the only players on injured reserve are backup linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and rookie running back Harvey Unga. As for other team's injuries, Chicago managed to beat the Panthers without Steve Smith; the Dolphins without Chad Henne and Chad Pennington; the Eagles without Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs; the Lions without Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill; and the Vikings without Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson.
Regardless, I do believe the Bears can handle any team in the league provided they're playing at their best, meaning no turnovers on offense, getting a few takeaways on defense and continuing to dominate on special teams.
BH: The statistics show Jay Cutler has taken quite a beating this year, but how much of that is old news? Judging by the offense's overall productivity down the stretch, my hunch is pass protection isn't a major issue anymore.
JC: The offense seems to be peaking at the right time of year, but Cutler is still being subjected to too much pressure more often than not and has been sacked more than any quarterback in the league. The difference is coordinator Mike Martz going against his damn-the-torpedoes instincts and keeping the run-pass balance around the 50-50 mark since the bye in Week 8, which has made it easier on the pass protection and also forced opponents to play more honestly. The offensive line simply lacks marquee names, as it's largely made up of free agents and late-round draft picks – Olin Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowler, is more of a locker-room leader than an on-the-field difference maker at center these days.
Say what you will about Cutler, and the "experts" at the four-letter network have done so time and time again, but you can't deny the fact that he's a tough S.O.B. and keeps getting up no matter how often he hits the deck.
BH: The Packers and Bears have changed so much since that Week-3 game, I'm not sure how much of what happened that night is relevant. It might take you an hour to talk about how the Bears have changed, but give us a Cliffs Notes version.
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JC: As I alluded to above, the biggest change for the Bears on the offensive side of the ball is a commitment to what is an average ground game, a better understanding of Martz's scheme as a whole and Cutler pushing his passer rating up to what would be a career-high 90.6 if 2010 ended today. Defensively, Julius Peppers finally saw the stats start to slant his direction, as he was equally dominant in the first half of the season but didn't really have all the numbers to prove it. In the secondary, Tim Jennings has played relatively well since taking over for the disappointing Zack Bowman at corner, D.J. Moore has come out of nowhere to impress at nickel back and Chris Harris has shown to be a more complete player during his second tour of duty in Chicago.
All that aside, when Devin Hester finally broke out of his touchdown-return slump against the Packers in Week 3, he made Chicago arguably the best special-teams unit in the league again, as he is as confident as I've ever seen him and truly believes he's going to score every time he fields a kick or punt.
BH: You asked me about the Defensive Player of the Year race between Peppers and Clay Matthews. So I'll ask you the same question, and, in your humble opinion, is Peppers or Brian Urlacher the key "addition" to the defense?
JC: After dealing with back and neck issues from 2007-08 and then missing almost all of the 2009 campaign with that freak wrist injury he suffered in the opener at Lambeau Field, not many people – myself included – figured he'd ever play at a Pro Bowl level again, certainly not at 32 years old. We were wrong, as Urlacher is one of the league's leading tacklers, among the frontrunners for Comeback Player of the Year and, yes, a member of the NFC Pro Bowl roster for the seventh time. Because the Bears have gotten back to playing a more pure version of Smith's Cover 2 this season, Urlacher's ability to fly from sideline to sideline defending the run and then cover the deep middle of the field defending the pass is almost impossible to replicate.
Nevertheless, when Urlacher himself says time and time again that Peppers is far and away the Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL, I tend to believe him.
BH: This just seems so comical now: Remember all the gnashing of teeth about the Bears wasting Hester's talents as a return man by having him play wide receiver? Yeah, I guess Hester running post patters had everything to do with his struggles on returns. So, after a touchdown-return slump for a couple of years, why is Hester such a lethal weapon again?
JC: When you cover this team on a daily basis, as I have done going back to Hester's rookie season, you get to see for yourself just how different Hester's body language can be from year to year, week to week and sometimes even return to return. When he was setting the world on fire this first two years and scoring seemingly every time he dropped back deep, even though he is a remarkably humble young man off the field, on the field he had a confidence and a swagger filling the stadium with every step he took. But then came 2008-09, when his workload as a receiver was increased substantially, and all of a sudden he wasn't quite sure where to go or what to do as a return man, as he wasn't able to focus on it as much in practice anymore.
Once he got King Kong off his back in Week 3 at Soldier Field against these same Packers, the confidence came back, the swagger came back, and now he's reclaimed his reputation as the baddest man on the planet in the open field – at least on special teams, that is.
While making Hester a receiver didn't necessarily waste his talents as a return man, it did initially put too much on his plate and tucker him out more during games.
John Crist is the publisher of BearReport.com. Bill Huber is the publisher of PackerReport.com.