Four Downs: Where do the Bears stand?

The Bears didn't look like an elite NFL team in their loss to the 49ers on Monday night. Kirby Lee/US Presswire

After winning seven of their first eight games, the Chicago Bears dropped two straight against some top competition -- the Houston Texans (9-1) and San Francisco 49ers (7-2)-- and fell three spots to No. 6 in this week's ESPN Power Rankings.

As the Bears prepare to take on NFC North rival Minnesota this weekend, should they still be considered one of the league's elite squads?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears are not a Top-5 team.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Houston, Baltimore, New England, San Francisco, Atlanta and Green Bay all appear better. But let's not rule out the Bears just yet. You don't have to be a Top-5 team to win a Super Bowl. You just need to be in the top six in your conference to make the postseason. Once a team qualifies for the playoffs, anything is possible. It's too early to write off the Bears after two straight losses, but their below average offense makes it hard to place them in the league's highest echelon. In my unofficial power ranking, I'd place the Bears No. 7 or No. 8.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. It’s a difficult pill for fans to swallow, but at this point the Bears don’t belong among the best in the league. I’ll leave out Atlanta (9-1), Houston (9-1) and Baltimore (8-2) and discuss the second tier. Of the five teams in that second tier with seven victories so far, I’d place the Bears at the bottom of this group that includes San Francisco (7-2-1), Denver (7-3), Green Bay (7-3) and New England (7-3). Of all those teams, the Bears are the only one in the midst of a two-game skid. Denver and Green Bay have won five in a row, the Patriots have captured four straight and we saw what the 49ers did to Chicago’s defense with a backup quarterback. The Bears offense won’t ever advance to the level required to win championships as long as the horrid line continues to allow undue punishment to Jay Cutler and anybody else under center. While it’s phenomenal what the defense has accomplished in regards to turnovers and scoring, the loss at San Francisco finally proved it was unrealistic to expect that type of play to continue on a consistent basis. The Bears set such a high bar with takeaways that no defense in the NFL could maintain that type of production every game.

Scott Powers: Fact. I’d still put the Bears among the top 10 teams in the NFL, but they have definitely fallen out of the top 5 with their last two performances. You’d have to place the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers ahead of the Bears now. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots would have to be right there, too. The Bears have a chance to put themselves among those elite teams again over the next month with their next four games being against teams over .500.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. The Bears are 0-3 against upper-echelon teams, and while plenty of teams go into the playoffs, and even win Super Bowls, by feasting on bad-to-mediocre teams, you can’t say the Bears are a top-5 team with an offense that's near the bottom of the league. Aside from that well-televised blip in San Francisco, the defense is certainly at the top of the league, but with an offense that talks more about its potential than it shows, the Bears aren’t there yet.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The offensive line is the Bears’ biggest concern.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. It all starts up front, and the Bears line has been way too inconsistent. Looking long-term, a strong argument can be made the Bears need to find three new starters in the offseason. But it's tough to make radical moves in-season, so even if the Bears swap out Gabe Carimi for Jonathan Scott, don't expect Scott to solve all the Bears' problems. At least the Bears have Lance Louis on the roster, a building block for the future who is in line for a contract extension, but Louis can't do it alone. Ruben Brown isn't walking through that door. John Tait isn't walking through that door. Heck, I'd kill to see Fred Miller walk through that door right now. But it's not happening.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. First off, the offense is already limited in what it can do in terms of play calling because of deficiencies along the offensive line. The Bears haven’t run the full scope of the scheme because the staff has to protect the line by calling for shorter drops, and sending fewer receivers out on routes, in addition to utilizing other tactics to assist. Even with all the help, the offensive line can’t consistently protect the quarterback or open lanes in the rushing game, which stalls the entire offense. What’s interesting is the offensive line held opponents to no sacks in just one game all season, and that happened to be the Nov. 11 matchup with Houston; a contest Cutler left with a concussion. The offensive line surrendered two sacks or more in all but two games this season. That’s a shame.

Scott Powers: Fact. As much as people want to complain about the team’s game plan, the Bears’ main problem continues to be their offensive line. Even the greatest game plan can’t save them when the offensive line is collapsing within moments of the snap. Jay Cutler (or Jason Campbell) can’t pass and Matt Forte can’t run without blocking, and the Bears just don’t have much of it right now. They need to find ways to better protect Cutler and create holes for Forte. If not, this season could be headed for disaster sooner than later.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. A week after out-scheming Houston, with some help from a muddy track, the line got destroyed Monday night. The reality is that no play-calls and no coaching can help a group with such talent deficiencies. Gabe Carimi has been an able run-blocking tackle, but he looks overmatched in pass blocking. It’s certainly easier to criticize J'Marcus Webb's bad games than compliment him when he does well, but he had the kind of game Monday that invites mockery. The fault lies with the talent evaluators that put this group together.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler could have made a difference on Monday.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. There is absolutely no way the Bears win that game even if Cutler was at quarterback. The Bears failed to block, tackle or cover. For all we know it might have been worse with Cutler in the game from a turnover standpoint. Cutler is a good quarterback, but he's not a miracle worker. And if the Bears ever play like that again, it will take a miracle for them to win.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Cutler couldn’t have played safety for the Bears and stopped Vernon Davis from putting on a tight end clinic by catching six balls for 83 yards and a touchdown. Cutler couldn’t have played defensive line to put some heat on Colin Kaepernick, who seemed way too comfortable in the pocket as he picked off the Bears for two touchdowns and a passer rating of 133.1. Sure, Cutler possesses a little more mobility than Jason Campbell, who suffered six sacks. But Cutler would have been under the same duress as Campbell. Cutler may have reacted better to the pressure, but the results would have been the same given the sub-par play up front and the fact the Bears could never establish any semblance of a running game.

Scott Powers: Fiction. Cutler is undoubtedly a better quarterback than Jason Campbell and may have given the Bears a few more first downs and another score, but no quarterback would have made a difference on Monday. There just wasn’t enough time to make plays with the pocket collapsing so quickly. Any quarterback would have ended up on the ground more often than not just as Campbell did.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Cutler is never going to be the (nearly) mistake-free franchise quarterback that people expect, but he can throw on the run and his arm can make up for any decision-making deficiencies. Of course, he also throws interceptions and take sacks, so the result very well could’ve been the same. But there’s no question that he’s a better quarterback than Jason Campbell, and since the backup is a paid voyeur during practices, the starting quarterback is much more prepared for game action.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Jared Allen will have a bigger game than Adrian Peterson on Sunday.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Mike Tice says the Bears will pay an inordinate amount of attention to Allen in the wake of the offensive line's dreadful performance in San Francisco, and I believe him. Expect Allen to see a constant stream of double-teams and chips that should prevent him from having an Aldon Smith-type game. If the Bears leave Webb or Carimi alone with Allen on an island, then shame on the Bears. But it's going to be tricky to minimize the damage Peterson will do the ground. Peterson has gone over 100 yards rushing in each of his last four games, a trend I suspect will continue on Sunday.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Peterson’s production coming off such a bad knee injury has been nothing short of amazing. But Chicago’s defense stops the run better than its offensive line stops opposing pass rushers, apparently. So look for Allen to produce the bigger game here. Tied for 13th in sacks with seven so far, Allen probably would like to reach double digits to move into the top five. After watching Aldon Smith wreck the Bears for 5.5 sacks, Allen is smart enough to try to employ some of the techniques utilized by the second-year linebacker along with some of his own signature moves. Allen generated 4.5 sacks in two games against the Bears in 2011, but this year’s offensive line appears to be playing worse than it did last season.

Scott Powers: Fact. As long as the Bears’ offensive line continues to block as it has, an opponent’s star defensive player has a greater chance to make an impact than any offensive player. Allen is tied for 13th with seven sacks and has to be licking his chops after seeing what Aldon Smith did on Monday.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Get ready for Allen’s obnoxious dancing. The Bears will definitely have some urgency in scheming against Allen, but the veteran will find a way to get in the backfield. Whether that results in sacks, pressures, fumbles, he won’t go away empty-handed like J.J. Watt (weather permitting). I think the defense will be geared up for a rebound performance and will shut down Christian Ponder, while gang-tackling the rejuvenated Peterson.