September 1, 2012
OK, Bears fans, you asked for it.
High expectations, Super Bowl predictions, national preseason acclaim.
Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher … all of the playmakers are in place, even though Urlacher may not be in one totally healthy place.
I can't recall a recent Bears team with such reasonably ambitious goals, even though the foreboding defending NFC North champion Packers loom. Television networks and Chicago fans worldwide await the renaissance of last year's 8-8 Bears team with remotes cocked and loaded.
"They have upgraded their offense. They are going to be much improved there, I believe," "Monday Night Football" analyst and former Super Bowl coach Jon Gruden said last week.
"But the heart and soul of the Chicago Bears is Brian Urlacher. I look at the Baltimore Ravens with Ray Lewis in a similar light … tempo-setter — just the leader behind the scenes and on the scenes in Chicago is Brian Urlacher. The question is not only can he play, (but) can he play at the level he has played for the last decade in the middle of that defense and on every single down?"
Affirmation of Urlacher's NFL immortality awaits.
On offense, where the Bears averaged just 22.1 points per game last season, so much attention has been devoted to the addition of Brandon Marshall as a big receiving target for Cutler. But Gruden emphasized another acquisition who could help in the red zone.
"They are going to be much improved with the addition of the big back, (Michael) Bush, from the Raiders," Gruden said. "They now have a 1-2 combination (with Forte).
"And Jay Cutler, healthy, in a system he enjoys, he likes, he's excited about … and they have surrounded him with some big, talented receivers. The Bears are going to be a real threat to win the North and go deep in the playoffs, provided Urlacher is healthy and they stay healthy as a team."
To be sure, Urlacher's health is a major proviso. Coach Lovie Smith insists his Pro Bowl middle linebacker will be ready for the Sept. 9 home opener against the Colts and the following Thursday night game at Green Bay.
"Monday Night Football" play-by-play man Mike Tirico says he has picked the Bears to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
"Cutler doesn't get hurt last year, this is a playoff team," Tirico said. "Alshon Jeffrey along with Marshall can give them a really diverse look on the offensive side. They can put up some really good personnel groups."
The Bears are scheduled to appear on "MNF" three times — on the road against the Cowboys on Oct. 1 and 49ers on Nov. 19 and at home Oct. 22 vs. the Lions.
"The games we happen to see Chicago in this year might be the games that determine if they can end up winning this division," Tirico said. "Division win or not, this would be a team that if they can keep Urlacher healthy, would be my pick to get to the Super Bowl."
The Bears also host the Texans on Nov. 11 on Sunday night. That one might not be the marquee matchup that attracts the biggest ratings, like the Cowboys vs. Giants season opener Wednesday night on WMAQ-Ch. 5.
"If the Cowboys play the Giants in a parking lot in March, it's still going to be tremendous," said broadcaster Al Michaels, who will do play-by-play for that game. "The NFL is hotter than any sport at any time in the history of this country. I can't wait to get started."
Neither can I.
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