There are five players whose performances will dictate whether the 2013 Bears remain competitive over the next 10 weeks and make the playoffs. Obviously, all 53 men on the roster have to do their jobs to the best of their ability, but the difference will be whether these five can put their team on their shoulders and carry them home.
The first and most important is running back Matt Forte. He is the key to the offense’s ability to consistently execute long drives that keep the defense off the field and finish in the end zone, and the magic number will be the amount of touches he gets a game.
To be successful, he’s gong to need a lot more help than he’s been getting from his offensive line.
The line is definitely improved and doing well protecting the quarterback, but the idea the Bears’ 14th-ranked running game is doing well is an illusion.
At the risk of emphasizing the obvious, the second most important Bear will be defensive end Julius Peppers. Both he and the team deny he’s been hurt, but I don’t believe them. Peppers missed almost all of the preseason with knee/hamstring problems and has been invisible in most of the games since the season started.
But for those who believe the soon-to-be 34-year-old is just graying and unable to play like he used to, how do you explain the Lions game, the one time this year he was as dominant as ever?
Perhaps I’m being stubbornly optimistic, but I’m hoping the bye week is exactly what the doctor ordered and the old Julius shows up in Green Bay.
I doubt linebackers Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene will ever be the second coming of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and I can guarantee you they won’t be over the next six to 10 weeks. Safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright are unlikely to do sudden 180s in their play, either.
If this Bears' defense is to become even average, Peppers must dominate the line of scrimmage they way he once did.
If he does, linebacker James Anderson will have a chance to be the third most important Bear on the field. That’s right, James Anderson.
I know he’s new to Chicago and still relatively unknown, but he actually has played well and is the only veteran player on the defense capable of taking over the field generalship role that Briggs had so seamlessly inherited from Urlacher.
If Anderson can lead, Bostic and Greene at least have a chance to follow. If Bostic is leading, the defense is practically assured of following him into a maze.
Quarterback Josh McCown is No. 4. I am relatively confident coach Marc Trestman understands the adjustments he has to make in his game plans to try to help his defense by keeping it off the field. It’s actually an easier plan and involves mostly shorter throws – think the Bears opening drive of the game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh – which are easier for the quarterback to complete.
And I’m relatively confident McCown can get the job done. What concerns me just a bit is in spite of how well he played in Washington, I keep having flashbacks to how ineffective he was in the preseason.
No. 5 is Devin Hester. Until he took that punt to the house in D.C., the Bears were looking more and more like dead men walking, and that was with Jay Cutler in the game. More scores would be nice, but minimally Hester has to be a field position monster with punt and kickoff returns.
If all five of these players come through, and it will take all five, I believe the Bears will weather the absences of Cutler and Briggs and be playing for a playoff spot Dec. 29.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.