The Bears came to camp with just one goal. They wanted take one more step beyond where they boldly went last season — to Super Bowl XLI, where they lost 29-17 to the Colts.
They believe they're more than ready.
"We had a great off-season," coach Lovie Smith said. "You get to camp a lot of times, and you're trying to figure out who can play and who should be at what position. We're beyond most of those. We know where the guys will play. We know who can play. It's just about us taking another step and (improving) just a little bit, and we can have different results."
The Bears knew they needed more consistent play at quarterback from Rex Grossman, and he looked sharp throughout camp, throwing the ball with authority, accuracy and conviction. His play in the preseason was generally impressive, except for Game Two, when he provided an unwelcome flashback to some of the meltdowns of 2006, fumbling three times and throwing an interception.
But the Bears are convinced that long hours of work with new quarterback coach Pep Hamilton have greatly improved Grossman's mechanics and have rid him of the bad habit of throwing off his back foot, which accounted for many of his poor throws and 20 interceptions last season.
The Bears also knew that their vaunted defense needed a motivated Lance Briggs at weak-side linebacker full speed for a full season. A Pro Bowler in each of the past two seasons, Briggs threatened to never again play for the Bears and then to sit out the first 10 games, after they slapped the franchise tag on him, keeping him off the free-agent market, even though he got a $7.2 million salary as a consolation prize.
Briggs showed up three days later than his teammates but in tip-top shape. He miraculously managed to remain in that condition after crashing his $350,000 Lamborghini Murcielago into a light pole in the wee hours of Aug. 27 after losing control of the vehicle. He wound up with two traffic tickets and a misdemeanor citation for failing to report an accident.
The Bears also needed to fill the void left by the release of troubled nose tackle Tank Johnson, whose off-the-field problems left them little choice but to part ways. They had already signed unrestricted free agent Anthony Adams in the off-season, but then early in camp jumped at the opportunity to trade for veteran tackle Darwin Walker, who was unhappy with his trade from the Eagles to the Bills and had failed to report. The Bears now believe they're better off in the interior of their defensive line and more responsible off the field.
But that's only if Tommie Harris, perhaps the best young defensive tackle in the game, plays at the same level he did for the first 10 games last season before suffering a torn hamstring that kept him out of the first three preseason games, although coach Lovie Smith insists he'll be OK for the opener.
The Bears also believe they have provided Grossman with more weapons this season, enough so that he doesn't have to press to make big plays — he just has to distribute the ball. First-round draft pick Greg Olsen is already being called the best receiving threat the Bears have had at tight end since Mike Ditka. Even more spectacular has been the conversion of Devin Hester to wide receiver from cornerback, where he was miscast as a rookie by his own choosing.
Although there are concerns that the Bears lack speed at safety with veterans Mike Brown and Adam Archuleta, both are tough, heady, big hitters who can intimidate receivers. The consensus is that the Bears are just as talented defensively as last season — and deeper.
Offensively, they have much more firepower, although they're gambling the running game that Cedric Benson will be an upgrade over Thomas Jones, who was traded to the Jets for a fifth-round pick, even though he rushed for 2,545 yards over the past two seasons.
Playing in what is expected to remain a mediocre NFC North, the Bears should have little trouble repeating as champions, even though this year's schedule looks more imposing on paper. They're a solid bet to make it back to the Big Game.
"It's more laid-back now," said Hester, whose first punt return of the preseason went for 50 yards. "I'm more relaxed. I kind of know what's going on with the situation and the style of how things are run now. There's not too much pressure; I feel like I'm not putting any more pressure on myself. I'm just going out and trying to make plays."
Hester, who is still learning the nuances of being an NFL wideout, has 3 catches for 23 yards in the preseason. But he has become a celebrity because of his unprecedented success as a kickoff and punt returner.
"I go out every now and then to the mall and stuff," Hester said. "And you've got fans out there that recognize you, and you just tell them, ‘OK, I'll sign this, (but) please don't make no scene about it.' You try to stay under cover. Outside of football, I just try to be a normal person."
"It's definitely disappointing," said wide receiver Bernard Berrian. "It's hard to play in Chicago, that's all I can say about that. You always feel bad, but you know he can handle it. He went through all of it last year. Rex is a tough character, and we know he can get through that."
"I didn't really know what to expect, so it wasn't really a surprise, but everything was new," said Olsen, who caught two passes in each of the first three preseason games, and had 39 receiving yards on his two catches against the 49ers.
"Dusty's playing well," defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "He not only tries hard, he's making plays, and he's showing that he belongs to be out there with the ones. He just has a fire and a type of energy that helps; that we all feed on. He's a nose guard, and the nose guard is kind of like the center of the defensive line."
Dvoracek was a third-round draft choice in 2006 who missed his rookie season with a foot injury.
BY THE NUMBERS: 44 — Number of turnovers the Bears forced in 2006, four more than the No. 2 team, the Ravens. Only one other team (the Vikings) had as many as 36.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've heard about the losing Super Bowl teams and what they're supposed to do. We haven't bought into that. What we're buying into is that we think we have our best team this year." — Bears coach Lovie Smith.
When the Lions reported to training camp, the buzz was about quarterback Jon Kitna's off-season comments. Kitna said the Lions would win 10 games. Then, after looking at the schedule, he said they would win more than 10.
Huh? The Lions went 3-13 last season, second-worst in the NFL. They have gone 24-72 since Matt Millen took over as team president in 2001, worst in the NFL.
Kitna's comments were more about stating goals and raising expectations than bragging or trash-talking. But they were based on a belief that Mike Martz's offense will be explosive.
"If we execute the offense the way it's supposed to be," Kitna said during training camp, "we have all the weapons necessary to be one of the best that's ever played in this league, I think."
That's a big "if," though.
"The potential of this group is pretty spectacular, really, I think," Martz said. "And I think that's what everybody's feeding on. But you and I know — I'm not being pessimistic at all — our job is to make sure all the focus is on the details and that we continue to get better every week. As long as we do that, there's no reason why this couldn't be a very special group."
The Lions could be a prolific passing team. The strength of the team is the receiving corps — Roy Williams, the reigning NFC receiving yards leader; Mike Furrey, the reigning NFC receptions leader; Calvin Johnson, widely considered the best player in this year's draft; and Shaun McDonald, who looks like another Furrey — a small, sure-handed guy who played for Martz in St. Louis and can be productive in this system.
But that had better be a prolific passing team. They're going to have to open up the run with the pass. They finished last in the NFL in rushing last season, and they still haven't shown they can impose their will on opponents.
And the Lions might have to win a lot of shootouts because of a questionable defense. The Lions have been decent against the run in the exhibition season, but when they have played elite quarterbacks — Cincinnati's Carson Palmer and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning — they have been awful against the pass.
The defensive line is full of guys with something to prove. If that group can't get pressure on the quarterback, a thin secondary will be in deep trouble. That might be why defensive coordinator Joe Barry sounds nothing like Kitna did in the off-season.
"I'm not going to sit here and make a bunch of bold predictions," Barry said. "There's one thing that we stress, and it's to play hard, play fast, be prepared and to finish. Those are the only four things that I consistently talk about with our group. Don't say a bunch of stuff that you can't back up. Just say those four things. If we can do those four things, I think we'll be pretty successful."
BY THE NUMBERS: 4 — Sacks the Lions allowed in their first three exhibitions. Kitna was sacked 63 times last season, more than any other QB in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Overall, we're disappointed. We've got to play better than that." — Coach Rod Marinelli, after the Lions lost their third exhibition, 37-10, at Indianapolis.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Standing alone as the top defensive playmaker in the NFC after tying for the conference lead in interceptions last season isn't what Charles Woodson is eyeing this season.
"I'm looking for the playoffs this year. Nothing less," he asserted.
Considering what he's put up with his first nine years in the league, it's understandable that the four-time Pro Bowl cornerback is antsy to experience playing football well into January.
"I want to win games. I've been mediocre team wise for the last five years, playing in Oakland and then coming here last year," Woodson said. "(Last year's) 8-8 (record) was a decent season; we ended up on a good note. But, we've just got to get wins. We've got to get into the playoffs to have a chance."
Whether the Packers are any closer to ending a two-year postseason absence than they were at the end of last season, when they won their final four games to barely miss earning a berth, is debatable.
Green Bay had the youngest team in the league in 2006 and won't be much older this season. In fact, general manager Ted Thompson, who is committed to a philosophy of building through the draft, might have four of his 11 picks this year play significant roles as the season gets going.
Running back Brandon Jackson (second round) and converted linebacker Korey Hall (sixth) are penciled in as starters at halfback and fullback, respectively. James Jones (third) is a bona fide top-three receiver. Mason Crosby (sixth) was going down to the wire in the preseason to wrest the kicking job from incumbent Dave Rayner.
The reliance on youth, though, underscores 37-year-old quarterback Brett Favre's pet peeve that he uttered for everyone to hear early in the offseason. Favre questioned the direction of the franchise for which he has been a leader since 1992 when Thompson chose not to upgrade the offense with veteran playmakers, namely receiver Randy Moss, who was available for a song in a trade with Oakland.
With the likes of Woodson, fellow shutdown corner Al Harris, linebackers Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk and ends Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins, the Packers enter the 2007 campaign with a formidable defense that could carry them in the short term.
Yet, any echoing of Woodson's playoff-hungry sentiments may fall on deaf ears because of an offense that appears to be worse off than how it ended last season, when it finished a respectable ninth in the league.
The 23rd-rated rushing attack lost franchise back Ahman Green to a lucrative free-agent contract from Houston. In his place are Jackson, a rookie who has potential but has never been a full-time featured back, and injury-plagued Vernand Morency.
The Packers threw the football 60.3 percent of the time last year with Green on board. Second-year head coach Mike McCarthy, the play caller for the offense, can't fathom asking Favre to put the ball up more than 600 times, as he has done the last two years. McCarthy might have no other choice, however, as he tries to repair an offense that had the worst red-zone production in the NFC last season.
"I hope it's 50-50. It would be great," McCarthy said of the run-pass ratio. "But, it's not going to be. Probably more like 45-55."
He was scheduled to meet Aug. 29 with New York Giants physician Russell Warren for a second medical opinion. Pending the outcome of that assessment, Hodge was prepared to spend this season on injured reserve.
"It's been up and down (trying to play with the balky knees), but it's something that I'll definitely have to take care of because I'm not able to play up to my potential," said Hodge, adding he's occasionally endured sharp pain. "It takes away from my game."
Hodge, a third-round draft pick, was limited to eight games as a rookie because of knee and shoulder injuries.
His frequent absences in the offseason and throughout training camp allowed rookie Desmond Bishop to assume the No. 2 job at middle linebacker behind Nick Barnett.
The ability of Holiday to play quarterback, where he was a starter for two seasons at Notre Dame before switching to receiver, could influence general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy's decision to veer from the norm and keep only two QBs (Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers) on the 53-man roster.
"That's something that we have discussed. There is a plan for that," McCarthy said. "We're going to play the percentages. The odds are in our favor" that the team would lose both iron man Favre and Rodgers to a significant injury.
Holiday, who is a good bet to make the team as the No. 5 receiver, said he would be ready to slide in at quarterback if called upon.
"It's not a hard job to do, being able to take a snap. I've been doing it for so long," he said. "If I couldn't take a snap now, then there's something wrong with me. I've played quarterback for so long."
Ingle Martin, the No. 3 QB last season, was released in the first round of roster cuts and might be re-signed to the practice squad. Undrafted rookie Paul Thompson finished the preseason at the third quarterback but wasn't worthy of being on the 53.
Rodgers escaped pressure and on the run fired a 15-yard strike to Martin in the back of the end zone for an apparent touchdown. Martin, though, stepped over the end line before making the catch, thus nullifying it with the penalty.
"Unfortunately, he stepped out," Rodgers said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 — Turnover margin last season (33 takeaways, 33 giveaways), the team's best ratio since it also was even in 2003.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When a player like that gets injured, it makes for good TV or radio and things like that, but it does concern you. I think he'll be fine. Being that he's a receiver and it's a foot injury, that is a concern, being that he has to cut and do those things. But, Donald's played through injuries before. You talk with him, and he's very optimistic." — Quarterback Brett Favre on the outlook for having top receiver Donald Driver available for the start of the season Sept. 9. Driver has been sidelined since suffering a sprained right foot against Jacksonville on Aug. 23.