Picking the Bears to win no longer will be for the crazy or brave alone

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Before every Bears game, some of us in the Sun-Times sports department predict a score and write a one-paragraph defense of it for public consumption.

Adam Jahns, who covers the team for us, was the only one who picked the Bears to beat the Packers on Thursday night. But it was his first sentence online and in the newspaper that really caught my eye: “Hear me out.’’

Now, “hear me out’’ is not a chest-beating proclamation of one’s undying belief. It is the weary, guarded preface of a man braced for an onslaught of abuse from readers. And, frankly, you would have had to be crazy not to question his sanity. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers came into the game with a 13-3 record against the Bears. And not only was Jay Cutler 1-11 against the Pack as a Bear, he had never won a game in Green Bay.

I bring up Jahns’ prediction not to stroke his ego (we’ll get to his unfortunate season record in a moment) but to point out how little faith there was in the possibility of a Bears’ victory at Lambeau Field that night. More importantly, the 17-13 triumph in the rain showed how wrong most of us have been with our broader view of the team, even though there had been steady improvement from the Bears during the season.

I’m tempted to add that the Packers aren’t even close to what they were last season, but I know that Bears fans, in their current state of rapture, won’t hear me out.

As Cutler said after Thursday’s game, the arrow seems to be pointing up for the Bears. They’ve been competitive in many of their games this season. If not for a John Fox brain cramp near the goal line against the Broncos a week ago, the Bears would be 6-5 instead of 5-6.

Then there’s the eminently reasonable rest of the schedule. In order the rest of the way, the Bears have 3-7 San Francisco and 4-6 Washington at home; 7-3 Minnesota and 5-5 Tampa Bay on the road; and finally 4-7 Detroit at Soldier Field.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves by pronouncing the Bears head and shoulders above those five teams. All of them, including the Bears, seem to be on the same spectrum of NFL-pretty-goodness. But it is true that the Bears are on an upswing, that they’ve figured some things out and that Fox seems to have hit a home run (scored a touchdown?) with the staff he hired. No matter what happens the rest of the way, that’s a nice foundation for the future.

But what do we have here, right now? That’s the question that has followed the Bears all season. The answer has fluctuated from week to week. Four things stand out:

– Talent wins in the NFL, and the Bears don’t have enough of it yet.

– Good coaching and willing athletes can, to a point, make up for a lack of ability.

– Cutler, the most talented player on the team and, before this season, the rashest, is thinking responsibly.

– The NFL is filled with a lot of teams that are like each other — good enough to give their fans hope one week and bad enough to crush their fans’ souls the next.

A combination of those four factors is why the Bears are a game below .500 during what was supposed to (and still is) a rebuilding year. They were supposed to be every bit as bad as their 0-3 start suggested they were. And now they’re every bit as good as their last game, which is what the league is selling.

So what does the city have right now in these Bears? A team with a rapidly growing self-belief. A team playing a lot of guys, some rookies, some castoffs, whom you had never heard of until this season. Or last week. A team that hasn’t been able to stop the run but has been able to stop opponents from scoring touchdowns when it matters. That’s the type of thing can that become part of a team’s long-term mindset, the way Charles Tillman’s punched forced fumbles once did.

On the other hand, the city has a 5-6 team on its hands, with all the doubts that go with it.

Jahns’ sanity is no longer in question. But before you start thinking of him as a soothsayer, and before his head grows to Barry Bonds’ proportions, know that his record heading into the Packers game was 3-7. Not that anyone is keeping score.

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