Which team will fall off?


Bears' injury luck may run out

Clayton By John Clayton

The Bears' 2010 season was a "Love-fest.''

Lovie Smith went from the coaching hot seat to the security of a contract extension. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz coexisted with quarterback Jay Cutler. Devin Hester sped to historic levels among NFL return specialists.

Unfortunately, happy returns in 2011 won't be as easy. Among the 2010 playoff teams with winning records, the Bears face the best chance to drop from an 11-5 division winner that went to the NFC title game. Their footing in 2011 is as tricky and as slick as it is on Soldier Field in late fall and early winter games.

Three factors usually precipitate a drop: a tougher schedule, potential for injuries and negative changes during the offseason. Those factors usually cause a 50 percent turnover of playoff teams annually. The Bears are losers on two of those three factors.

Their first-place finish in the NFC North doesn't punish them too badly. They go from a .473 schedule that was the ninth easiest to a .500 schedule that is palatable. The two noncommon games the Bears play for winning the division aren't killers. The Bears play host to Seattle, winner of the NFC West, and travel to Philadelphia, the NFC East winner. The Packers, who finished second in the NFC North, play host to St. Louis and travel to the New York Giants.

What will be tougher for the Bears to repeat is their 5-1 record within the division, which gave them the one-game advantage to nudge past the Packers for first place. The Lions are getting better and are in the third year of a major rebuilding project. The Vikings may be weaker without Brett Favre, but they still are a tough division rival.

The most significant problem facing the Bears is the luck that enabled them to win 11 games. Despite having Cutler's strong arm and Martz's sharp mind, the Bears averaged only 20.9 points a game, leaving a tighter margin of error for winning games. Their luck involved injuries. The only Bears starter who missed more than a couple of games because of injury was linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa

Rarely can a team repeat being that healthy for a 17-week season. And the core group on defense is older. Brian Urlacher is 32, and Julius Peppers is 31. Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Israel Idonije are all 30. The Bears cut defensive tackle Tommie Harris, haven't re-signed 30-year-old defensive tackle Anthony Adams and aren't as stout in the middle of their defense.

Finally, moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 affects the Bears more than any other team. Since 2006, the Bears consistently have started drives from about their 31, thanks to Hester's ability to return the ball. If kickers force more touchbacks against the Bears, touchdown drives will be tougher and the team's scoring could drop below 20 points a game.

Seahawks face improving division

Sando By Mike Sando

The NFC West fell just right for the Seattle Seahawks last season.

The St. Louis Rams ran out of healthy receivers while breaking in a rookie quarterback. The Arizona Cardinals lost Kurt Warner to retirement, cut Matt Leinart right before the season and found out the hard way Derek Anderson wasn't the answer. The San Francisco 49ers imploded in Week 1 and never could find any consistency with a head coach wound too tight.

Even then, the Seahawks needed a Week 17 victory to back into the playoffs with a 7-9 record. They became the NFL's first division winner with a losing record.

Seattle's wild-card upset win over New Orleans the next week went down as one of the most memorable -- and least probable -- achievements in local sports history.

Sure, it could happen again. It's just that the odds are against it. More than any 2010 playoff team, the Seahawks appear destined for a significant fall-off. They'll have a hard enough time winning the division, let alone advancing in the playoffs with a team that remains in rebuild mode.

The Seahawks surprisingly jumped to a 4-2 start last season, catching San Diego and Chicago at just the right time. They play four of their first six games on the road in 2011, with games against Pittsburgh, Atlanta and the New York Giants looming during that stretch. Another fast start appears less likely, and Seattle lacks the depth to hold up for the long haul.

This team also lacks frontline talent. Seattle was the only team in the division last season without even one Pro Bowl player. Its lively fans, known as the 12th Man, served as Seattle's representative for the "Madden NFL 12" cover vote -- a nice gesture, but also one reflecting the team's lack of star power.

Youth will be served in 2011. That's a good way to build for the long term, but if the Seahawks get back to the playoffs right away, it'll almost be by accident.

The roster is in transition.

Seattle's front office put itself in position to become an aggressive player in free agency even if a salary cap returns. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck remains unsigned. He could return as a nearly 36-year-old starter with 10 more interceptions than touchdowns since 2008, or the franchise will start anew with Kevin Kolb, Charlie Whitehurst or another unproven quarterback.

The Rams have Sam Bradford returning and Josh McDaniels in place to rev up the offense. The 49ers finally have a competent offense-minded head coach to help them get more from what is arguably the most talented roster in the division. The Cardinals can improve by becoming even halfway decent at quarterback, a position they still must address.

Every team in the NFC West still has question marks.

This year as last, Seattle will need lots of cooperation to emerge on top.