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Hayes: Bears are gaining on Packers

CHICAGO (MCT) — My initial impression of the 2012 Chicago Bears is this: I haven’t seen them yet.

It’s true, I was at Soldier Field on Thursday night, when the Bears served as stage props for Peyton Manning’s return to the NFL. (Except for safety Major Wright, who forced Manning to exit, interception stage left.) But I didn’t see the Bears as they will be constituted when the season opens.

Quarterback Jay Cutler didn’t play. Defensive standouts Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers didn’t play. Matt Forte was a standing back, not a running back. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall caught one pass for four yards, so he sort of played.

I didn’t glean much from watching the Bears in their 31-3 loss to the Denver Broncos in their first preseason game. I will say that timeout to ice the Broncos’ kicker right before halftime was fun for the press-box reaction it generated. Synopsis: Reporters were not supportive.

What I do know, from past play, from the roster they’ve put together and from the enthusiasm of the players is this: The Bears should stage an epic battle with the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions for NFC North supremacy. The winner, if it emerges without too much wear, has a legitimate chance to reach the Super Bowl.

The Bears’ B Team, which lost to the Broncos, isn’t going anywhere. But the good teams have proved through the years how little preseason results mean when it comes to the real deal.

Here are the reasons I like the Bears this season:

—Cutler and Marshall. These guys have their critics, but the bottom line is they enjoy playing together. Cutler was as sharp as any quarterback before he went down last season, and the Bears at that point were true contenders. I don’t see any reason why the addition of Marshall – Cutler’s former Denver teammate – can’t give the offense an additional jolt.

Cutler enters this season with as much to prove as any quarterback in the league. He needs to make his impact as a championship-winning quarterback as he reaches his prime. Adding Marshall to the big-play threat of Devin Hester gives Cutler the kind of targets that turn a good quarterback into a great one.

—The “old dogs” of the defense. Time will begin to catch up with Urlacher (34 years old and dealing with “personal issues”), Peppers (32 years old) and Briggs (31 years old). That means either they start showing signs of slowing or they gear up for one big-time run toward glory.

Given Urlacher’s career-long attitude, and the fact that Briggs was one of the few active (i.e., interested) players in the first preseason game, I’d lean toward the run for glory. Players in their early 30s have made their money; they want to make sure they make their mark.

There will be questions about whether the Bears’ vaunted defense is aging. My guess is these three will do everything possible to prove it’s not.

—Forte should be good for a full season. He’s one tough running back, steeled further by his issues with injuries and contract negotiations.

Bears running back coach Tim Spencer says Forte looks faster than ever. Other reports say he’s stronger than he’s been at any time in his career. It’s doesn’t take a great football mind to add faster to stronger and come up with the rare running back who can make a major impact in this era of pass-first NFL.

The Bears have few holes. Even the weaker areas, such as the secondary, have players capable of making impact plays.

For now, because of Aaron Rodgers, I’d put the Packers slightly ahead of the Bears in the NFC North.

But if Urlacher, Peppers and Briggs bring the heat like they should, this Bears team can rearrange the hierarchy.

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