LAKE FOREST – The greatest irony of all the gloom and doom surrounding the Bears' 2019 season from a significant portion of fans is that they are basically two or three plays away from being exactly where they were last year.
With 6:01 to play in the game in London, they led the Raiders, 21-17, and had the Raiders punting on fourth-and-6 from their own 7-yard line. If Kevin Pierre-Louis doesn’t run into the kicker, the Bears get the ball at no worse than midfield and arguably put the game away.
Even with that mistake, trailing 24-21, the Bears have the ball at the Raiders' 47 and are driving with 1:22 to play when on second down Chase Daniel inexplicably throws the ball to the Raiders' Gareon Conley with no Bear in sight. Game over.
Three weeks later, if Eddy Pineiro hits a 41-yard field goal as time expires against the Chargers, the Bears win.
Change two or three of those plays, and instead of 7-6 the Bears are 9-4, exactly where they were one year ago heading into Week 15. They would be in control of the NFC’s second wild card with a chance to still win the NFC North by beating the Packers on Sunday.
Perspective is everything. At the same time, if I had another $999,999,000, I’d be a billionaire.
The Bears deserve no more than their 7-6 record, but that’s how fickle the NFL is these days.
They deserve that record because the offense until Thursday had taken a giant step backward from last season, and their “generational” defense, as many have called it, hadn’t been there to bail it out.
Realistically, the Bears' defense has resembled last year’s group once all season, and that was in the opening-night loss to the Packers.
But has it really been that far off?
We knew going in that last season’s otherworldly 36 takeaways – including 27 interceptions and six defensive scores – were unlikely to be repeated, but this season’s 16 takeaways, with only eight picks and one score, have still disappointed.
Other than that, it is still one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Last season, the Bears were third in total defense, first against the run, seventh against the pass, fourth on third down and first in points allowed. This year through 13 games, they are 10th, seventh, 13th, seventh and fourth, respectively.
Add injuries and time off for Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith and Prince Amukamara, and the performance is actually pretty impressive.
If the offense continues to improve off its previous outing, can this team make a run at 10-6?
It is possible the defense's best football is still in front of it.
Khalil Mack and Kyle Fuller are playing like two of the best in the league at their positions, and Eddie Jackson and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix have played their best football of the season the past few weeks.
According to inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone, Nick Kwiatkoski and Pierre-Louis in for Smith and Trevathan shouldn’t be the reason for any dropoff.
“KPL is an unbelievable person, great pro, comes to work every day very serious, prepares," DeLeone said. “When he’s had moments in games this year, he comes in the Minnesota game and made big plays. He comes in last week and makes plays. Kevin’s got all the tools you look for.
“Kwiatkoski can do a lot of different things really well. I think his best trait is probably the way he plays the game. He plays the game of football the right way. You talk about the way you want your linebacker to play like, he is downhill on every play.”
They are not Smith and Trevathan, but if Hicks is back Sunday for the Packers and anywhere near 100%, suddenly everyone else is better, especially Mack, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols and Roy Robertson-Harris.
At this point, whether or not this team can actually make a run from here is really far more up to quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the offense.
But there should be little doubt the championship contention window for this team is still wide open for at least next season and quite possibly beyond.
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.