Despite big moves, Bears still third best

I can think of 20,000 better ways to spend the $20,000 or so Julius Peppers dropped recently in a Chicago nightclub on champagne and strangers.

Fund a scholarship … contribute to Haiti or Chile disaster relief … bankroll a homeless shelter for a month -- I'm just spitballing here. Or do the Secret Santa thing and buy some lucky Chicago Bears fan his personal seat license and season tickets.

Instead, reports the Chicago Tribune, Peppers bought three $3,000 bottles of champagne for him and his private party, and another 25 bottles of bubbly (at $350 per) for the rest of the nightclub patrons. With a 15 percent tip, you're looking at a little more than $20K.

But it's Peppers' money -- an NFL-record $42 million of his new $91.5 million contract with the Bears is guaranteed -- so $20,000 must feel like toll booth change to him. And if Peppers does what he's supposed to do, which is make opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles pee themselves, then Bears fans and Bears management will toast him back.

Don't get me wrong, I think the Peppers acquisition was a spectacular and audacious free-agent signing, especially for a franchise known for squeezing pennies so hard that Lincoln gasps for breath. But only that $42 million is guaranteed, not the results.

Of course, the Bears didn't have any choice; they had to purchase Peppers, even if it meant exposing ownership for what it was: shoulder pad-deep in money, but too cautious or too cheap in the past to spend it on an elite free agent. To their credit, the Bears gave Peppers their ATM password.

As a side note, the signing officially ends the ridiculous notion that the Bears couldn't eat the final two years of coach Lovie Smith's contract because it was -- all together now -- too expensive. If they can afford Peppers, they could have afforded to fire Smith.

Anyway, Peppers is in Chicago with his new BFF, Smith, who gets one last chance to reverse the Bears' free fall since their loss in the 2007 Super Bowl. If the Bears go a fourth consecutive year as postseason no-shows, Smith is gone. It's that simple.

There are no excuses left for the Bears. They have the defensive end (Peppers) they craved. They have the quarterback (Jay Cutler) they gutted their 2010 draft for. They have the linebacker (Brian Urlacher) they lost to injury last season.

They have the blocking tight end (Brandon Manumaleuna) they wanted. They have the veteran running back (Chester Taylor) they needed. They have their hand-picked coordinators, Mike Martz on offense and Rod Marinelli on defense.

Holes remain on the roster (safety, offensive line, wide receiver), but thanks to the spend-a-thon the Bears are a better team today than they were a few days ago.

OK, so they're better, but are they the best in their own division? And the answer to that question wasn't buying pricey champagne Saturday night in Chicago. Instead, the answer was happily doing nothing in Hattiesburg, Miss.

If Brett Favre returns to the Minnesota Vikings for his 20th NFL season -- and you can make a compelling case why he would and should -- then the Vikings remain the favorites to win the NFC North. Their version of Peppers (Jared Allen) is two years younger. Their running back (Adrian Peterson) is a lot better than everyone else's running back. Their receiving corps is more complete.

But as always, the X factor is Favre. Had you seen him after the Jan. 24 loss in the NFC Championship Game, you would have said he was done. His ankle was the size of a fruit basket. He had bruise and welt marks on his back and shoulders. He was 40 going on Abe Vigoda.

But that was almost two months ago. He can now walk without a limp. His body doesn't feel like it belongs in formaldehyde. And just the other day Vikes head coach Brad Childress stopped by to say hello.

If I'm Childress, I hide the film of Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie getting terrorized by Peppers in December's game against the Carolina Panthers. That was the same Dec. 20 defeat when Childress wanted to pull Favre because of the beating he was taking from Peppers and the rest of the Panthers' D-line.

It's a guess, nothing more, but I think Favre returns. I didn't think so after the NFC Championship Game, but I do now. And if he does come back, then the balance of power in the NFC North remains in Minneapolis.

Well, at least the Bears and Peppers would move ahead of the Green Bay Packers, right? Uh …

Question: Whom would you want as your franchise quarterback -- Cutler, who led the NFL in interceptions last season and must learn his third offensive system in three years, or Aaron Rodgers? Rodgers.

Whose wide receivers would you want -- the Bears' or the Packers'? The Packers'.

Whose running game would you want -- the 29th-ranked Bears' or the 14th-ranked Packers', whose rushing attack accounted for 14 more touchdowns than Chicago's last season? The Packers'.

Whose defense would you want -- the Packers' D, which finished second in total defense, or the Bears' D, which was 17th? Peppers' arrival and Urlacher's return make this at least a push.

The Bears have Peppers, but the Packers have the 23rd and 56th selections in next month's draft, while the Vikings have the 30th and the 62nd picks. Barring a trade, the Bears don't choose anyone until the third round and the 76th overall spot.

Peppers makes a difference, but I'm not sure he makes the difference. Cutler, who was going to be the 2009 Bears savior, proved there are no sure things.

The good news for the Bears?

The Detroit Lions.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.