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Quarterback Jay Cutler celebrates his six-yard touchdown run with Devin Hester against the Seattle Seahawks in the second quarter of the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game at Soldier Field on Jan. 16.
We know how you feel, Bears fans. After losing to the Packers in the playoffs, all seems lost, but let's get some perspective. This season was a success, both on its own and moving forward to next year. Why?
1. Jay Cutler now has experience in the playoffs. Before this season, Cutler's last postseason game was in high school. He now understands the crucible that is playing in the NFL postseason in the second-largest NFL city. That experience will be invaluable as the 27-year-old moves forward with his career as a quarterback.
2. Peppers, Briggs and Urlacher jelled, and it was beautiful. After an injury took out Brian Urlacher for all of 2009, the brunt of the Bears D was on Briggs' broad shoulders. Urlacher's health and the addition of Peppers allowed the entire Bears defense to flourish. All three are Pro Bowlers, but more importantly, the Bears ended the season the fourth-ranked defense in the league. Last season? 18th.
3. Matt Forte and Devin Hester found their legs again. Both Hester and Forte had breakout years, then struggled to reach the same heights again. This season, they both thrived again. Forte showed not only that he can run, but that he can catch too, gaining 1,616 all-purpose yards. Hester's role as a receiver took a backseat, allowing Hester to do what he did best: return kicks. He became the NFL's all-time return touchdown leader in just five seasons.
4. New role players found a chance to emerge: Earl Bennett. D.J. Moore. Israel Idonije. Corey Graham. Before this season, those players had small, negligible contributions, but they all stepped up this season. Moore had four interceptions. Bennett created the Commodore connection with his fellow Vanderbilt man, Cutler. Israel Idonije tied Peppers for the most sacks, and Corey Graham became known as one of the best special teams men in the league.
5. Lovie Smith and his staff learned to adjust. The Bears season is easily broken down into two halves -- before the bye and after it. After starting the season 3-3, with disastrous losses to New York, Washington and Seattle, the Bears took advantage of the bye week. Smith and his staff made the right changes to get the Bears to go on a five-game winning streak, make the playoffs and end with one of the best records in the NFC.
6. Expectations were destroyed. Be honest. In September, did you expect the Bears to make it the playoffs, much less the NFC championship? Neither did we, and neither did many experts. Not a single Sports Illustrated writer predicted that the Bears would make the playoffs.
But the team ignored those predictions, won 11 regular season games and for a little while, gave Chicago a reason to ignore the arctic temperatures. If that's not success, what is?