One of the hardest things about covering the NFL in recent years has been figuring out from year to year where the strengths and weaknesses lie around the league.
I always refuse to get caught up in arguments and debates about difficulty of schedules and I try to avoid projecting week-to-week wins and losses before a season begins.
Many critics of the Bears’ 10 wins in 2012 argued they beat up on cupcakes and lost to the good teams they played. The 64-95 record of the teams they beat and the fact that the Colts and Vikings were the only teams with winning records that they beat proved half that argument, and the fact the Packers, Texans, 49ers, Seahawks and Vikings were playoff teams they lost to (Green Bay twice) cemented it.
Looking ahead to this year, many feared the presence of the Bengals, Steelers, Saints, Giants, Redskins, Ravens and their two divisional games with Green Bay and Minnesota would make this schedule far more difficult.
The efforts of Pittsburgh, New York, Washington and Minnesota to date already have proved that theory wrong.
What matters now is the Bears are tied for first place in the NFC North with the Lions, and the Packers are just a half game behind. It seems quite possible the outcome of their three remaining games with those two clubs will determine the winner of the division.
So how do the Bears stack up right now against Detroit and Green Bay?
The Packers would appear to have the best balance of offense and defense. Obviously, Aaron Rodgers still is one of the best players in the NFL and the best quarterback in the division. But have you seen what Green Bay is doing on the ground? The Packers are third in NFL rushing, and fifth in average gain per run.
The Packers defense is murder against the run, third in the league. And unlike the Bears’ unit, which is struggling, it appears to be getting better every week. Injury-wise, the Packers have been hit harder than the Bears, losing Bryan Bulaga for the year and Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb for extended periods, but they haven’t skipped a beat yet.
Green Bay has quality wins over Detroit and Baltimore and their losses were to the 49ers and Bengals. Most concerning for Bears fans should be the fact that the only clubs with winning records left on their schedule are the Lions and their two games with the Bears.
The Lions technically have a half game lead on the Bears because of their head-to-head win, and perhaps more promise defensively because of the play of their two defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and an improving back seven.
Offensively, the Lions and Bears are similar, dependent on an elite receiver and multi-purpose running backs, and both Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler have boom or bust written all over them.
After Cincinnati on Sunday, the Lions, like the Packers, have no winning teams outside of the division left to play. Although, like the Bears, they have Baltimore lurking later in the season.
If the Packers are in fact the team to beat, could the Lions and Bears both be wild cards this year? That seems unlikely, with the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West.
It does appear the NFC North is the best division in the conference, and the most important stretch of the season will be the two weeks after the bye when the Bears travel to Green Bay on Nov. 4 for a Monday night meeting with the Packers and then the next Sunday when the Lions come to Soldier Field.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.