When the final pieces of the 2016 Bears schedule clicked into place (last-place opponents for a last-place NFC North team), and directions were becoming apparent based on personnel changes, this reporter posited a 10-6 forecast for a team that had the misfortune of being in the same division with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. Now after a second full offseason, training camp and (this year, lurching) preseason under coach John Fox, that prediction is under intense scrutiny.
For many and good reasons.
One disclosure: This reporter considers predictions between 7-9 and 9-7 to be little better than going with the chalk in every race. My cat Bailey could make that prediction, and that’s even after I’d had to put the little guy down three weeks ago.
Just looking at the past five seasons, fractionally more than one-third of the NFL finishes between 7-9 and 9-7. Bold. Like picking the New England Patriots to win the AFC East.
And if your humble and faithful narrator was in fact sure that the Bears would finish in the great mosh pit of the NFL, he would so predict.
But he doesn’t. And here’s why:
Every year a small segment of the NFL population vastly under-achieves. In 2014 that group included the Bears after standing 8-6 late in 2013. Last year the Indianapolis Colts were prohibitive favorites to win the perennially weak AFC South and missed the playoffs at 8-8. That sort of thing.
And some go far, far beyond their typecasting. No one saw the Carolina Panthers going 15-1. (That’s not the same thing as “overachieving,” because there is no such thing as overachieving. But that’s for another discussion.)
The Bears will be one of those latter teams in 2016, because:
- Their schedule is nothing like last year’s, which started with Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle and which put them against five playoff teams in their first seven games. The Bears may represent a winnable game for every one of their opponents, but the reverse is equally true.
- Whether the Bears are “good” or “bad” is a meaningless discussion. The NFL grades on a curve — are you better than the Packers/Vikings/Cowboys/Eagles/etc. or not? — so the question is not necessarily “who are the Bears’ playmakers?” so much as, who are everybody else’s you face? The Bears had just four games decided by more than one score last season. The Bears were closer to 8-8 than to 4-12.
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- The Bears made major upgrades to their defense; major, including two starting linebackers and a defensive lineman, plus investing No. 1 and 3 draft picks on defense. Defense travels, and the Bears of John Fox already were good on the road (5-3 in 2015). Before this season is over, the Bears will contend with the Vikings for the NFC North’s No. 1 defense.
All of which brings us to this point: I expect the Bears to win nine games. But picking 9-7 is simply too boring. Therefore the 2016 Bears will be: 10-6.
As for the rest of the NFL divisions and playoffs:
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
NFC East: New York Giants
NFC South: Carolina Panthers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals
Wild cards: Seattle Seahawks, Bears.
Conference champion: Cardinals
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC East: New England Patriots
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
Wild cards: Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals
Conference champion: Steelers
Super Bowl LI champion: Cardinals