Monday Rebuttal: Chicago Bears Surprise Playoff Contender

This past weekend, Brendan Pignataro and Mark Morales-Smith staged their usual Sunday Debate. Here’s why both writers left out another possible answer.

If you’re a fan of the old “Batman” television series, you’ll know that Frank Gorshin (The Riddler), Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Julie Newmar (The Catwoman) and more were known in the credits as the “Special Guest Villain.”

I guess I’ll be the bad guy of sorts here. One of NFL Spin Zone’s weekly staples is called “Sunday Debate.” It features Mark Morales-Smith and Brendan Pignataro, two of our outstanding writers who do their best imitation of “Crossfire” (Google it).

Oct 11, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Charles Sims (34) dives for a first down during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa won 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This past weekend, the topic was surprise playoff contenders. Mark took the Jacksonville Jaguars and Brendan opted for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You can check their thoughts out right here, but…

With all due respect, I’m going with C…as in the improving Chicago Bears.

The feeling here is that John Fox’s club will pick up where they left off last season. To refresh your memories, this was a dismal Bears’ team that started the season 0-3 and was outscored by a combined 105-46 in those losses to the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks – all playoff-bound clubs.

But the team rallied to go 6-7 the remainder of the year and six of their seven setbacks were by seven points or less. Their six victories includes road triumphs over the Chiefs and Packers (the latter spoiling Brett Favre’s return to Lambeau Field).

Dec 13, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) is sacked by Chicago Bears outside linebacker Willie Young (97) linebacker Lamarr Houston (99) and nose tackle Eddie Goldman (91) during the first half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing 30th in the league in total defense in both 2013 and 2014 in total defense, Chicago improved to a respectable 14th in that category under Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio. Players like outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and rookies such as cornerback Kyle Fuller and nose tackle Eddie Goldman made their mark. Pass rushers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young also aided this unit’s cause.

Still, the Bears did surrender 40 offensive touchdowns and a disappointing 120.9 yards per game on the ground. This offseason, general manager Ryan Pace used six of his nine draft choices on defensive help and also signed free-agent inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan as well as defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.

On offense, quarterback Jay Cutler made strides last season under Adam Gase. Now new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains hopes to build on the signal-caller’s improved play. Key targets such as tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte are gone but a little youth hopes to be served on this side of the ball in ’15 first-round wideout Kevin White (who missed his rookie season) and second-year running back Jeremy Langford.

Of course, the major hurdle for this club is winning within the division. In 2015, the Bears were 1-5 vs. their NFC North rivals and 5-5 vs. the rest of the league. This is a club that is a combined 11-21 the past two seasons, including 2-10 vs the Packers, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. But things can change in a hurry in this league, although it’s also worth noting that the team from the Windy City hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2010.

Both Brendan and Mark make excellent cases in their analysis and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both the Bucs and the Jaguars in the hunt this fall. But I lean a little more towards the Bears and Fox, who has proven to be a quality head coach in his previous stops with the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos.

Sorry guys.