LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- For all intents and purposes, the Chicago Bears' season begins this Sunday.
At 5-3, the Bears find themselves relevant but unpredictable. A team capable of beating anyone, yet unable to put together a complete game even against subpar opponents.
But winning five out of eight -- with four of the wins coming against a collection of misfits that are a combined 4-28 -- has only served to put the Bears in position to make the playoffs, and a precarious position at that. Making the playoffs for the first time since the Super Bowl season of
2006-07 is the only goal for this team. With a win over Minnesota on Sunday and Green Bay idle, the Bears could be back atop the division by midafternoon. The rest of the schedule is certainly daunting. Aside from the Vikings (3-5) and the Lions (2-6), the Bears play five teams with a combined 27-14 record. All but Miami (4-4) have winning records.
So the road to the playoffs is paved, but like the Chicago highways, it's so clogged you might never reach your destination.
While a win against the Vikings would be a major boost to the Bears' playoff chances, I don't see it happening. The Bears have looked too mediocre, too uneven, for me to think they're going to pull it together against better competition.
And I have an eerie feeling the Vikings are going to come together in spite of their coach, who seems about as popular in that locker room as a drug test, while the Bears are still futilely searching for an identity on offense.
"This is a big game for us," Lovie Smith told reporters after practice. "This is as big a game as we've had in a long time around here."
Despite the enormity of the game, there wasn't much buzz at Halas Hall on Wednesday. During the open locker room, only a handful of players trickled in for gentle inquisition. The highlight, or lowlight, was a handful of TV reporters taking Robbie Gould up on his offer of free jeans that seemed to have some kind of Bears logo on them.
Why Gould was giving away jeans is beyond me. Maybe he stopped at a swap meet on his way to work.
So besides Gould playing Oprah, there was Brett Favre to discuss, and I know everyone, everywhere is sick of talking about the guy. We were sick of Favre five years ago. His ubiquity and wishy-washiness, not to mention his recent notoriety with you know who and you know what.
But Favre is still the lead story this week, because the Vikings aren't going away. Despite a horrific start and his aching body rebelling against him, Favre is still playing pitch-and-catch like a nightmare Steve Spurrier dreamed up after a long day on the golf course.
Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards last week in a comeback win over Arizona that might have saved the Vikings' season and given their embattled coach, Brad Childress, a stay of execution.
Jay Cutler, who has been called Favre's heir as far as arm strength, marveled at the future Hall-of-Famer's longevity. But like a young football coach talking about Joe Paterno, he can't fathom why he's still playing.
"I don't know what he's doing," Cutler said with a chuckle. "That's a lot of games, a lot of toll on your body. And he's probably going to have some surgeries in the next 10 years to repair some stuff. But it's remarkable. Everyone talks about it, everyone knows what kind of precedent he's set and it's going to be hard for anyone to touch that."
With Favre operating like a strong-armed (still mistake-prone) zombie and Adrian Peterson chugging along and the defense making strides, the Vikings are not going to fold like the Dallas Cowboys. The release of Randy Moss and the team's dislike of Childress could be a boon to the team down the stretch.
"I was telling someone last week that this is one of the closest teams that I've ever played on," Favre, who has certainly never exaggerated in his 35-year NFL career, told reporters in a teleconference. "The chemistry is great regardless of what people try to say from the outside. We have remained close, and that has really held us together. It's a good group of guys. Can we play better? Absolutely, we can play better. But from a chemistry standpoint, it's a very close group."
While everyone is amazed at Favre's longevity, Smith's teams have been famously successful against the quarterback. Favre's teams are 3-7 against Smith's Bears, but he looked very good against Chicago last season as they split the series, throwing for more than 700 with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Bears' defense is certainly better than last year with a host of superlatives to back up their play, from their 14.6 points allowed per game to their stellar numbers on third down to their continued success at forcing fumbles. But the Bears defense can be beat. They have trouble getting pressure on the quarterback and are susceptible to the mid-range passing game.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick gave them trouble at times, but ultimately he wilted in the fourth quarter. Aaron Rodgers sliced and diced the Bears in Week 3, but couldn't get a long pass. Favre will surely test the defense vertically, and the Bears hope to get a lead to reduce Peterson's workload.
"Honestly, as a group, collectively, they're playing outstanding," Favre said. "They're creating turnovers. They're playing well against the run. Obviously, you can't sit back there and hold the ball a long time, even in their four-man rush, because of the addition of [Julius Peppers]. For me, in recent memory, this collectively is as good as they're playing."
While Smith remarked Monday that the media is treating the Bears like they're 2-6, rather than 5-3, it's been an even weirder year in Minnesota, with Childress responsible for some of the more awkward moments, and Favre's off-field problems bringing a circus atmosphere.
"It has been a struggle this year, but I like the way our guys are working and have pulled together," Favre said. "Time will tell how this season will end up. But no one ever said it was going to be easy, that's for sure."
The Bears could certainly agree with that statement. This veteran team has held together and even during the team's 1-3 slide before the bye week, finger-pointing was kept private. This is a team that respects each other and its coach, and that's commendable.
But the last two months of the season, if the season ends on Jan. 2 in Green Bay, are going to be not only interesting, but could also be franchise-defining.
Jobs are on the line, legacies are on the line.
Think about it: Chicago could win 10 games or six this season, and there's an argument for both sides. I really think we're going to see which direction the Bears are headed this Sunday.
I just have a bad feeling where they're headed, and it's not the playoffs.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com