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To Hope or Despair in 2011

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 23: A member of the Chicago Bears field team waves a Bears flag as the before the Bears take on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

    Though watching the Packers enjoy Super Bowl week is hurting us, that doesn't mean we can't have hope, Bears fans. There are plenty of reasons to get excited about next season. For example:

    1. A playoff-tested Jay Cutler: One of the many questions with Cutler this season was how would he handle the playoffs? Until this season, he hadn't played in the postseason. Now, he knows what playoff pressure in Chicago is like, and was able to get close to the big game. A championship is addictive -- he'll want to get back there soon.

    2. More experienced wide receivers
    -- Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett showed growth over the season, but both could use the off-season to strengthen their weak points. Still, having a deep threat like Knox, or a reliable over-the-middle receiver like Bennett can only benefit Cutler.

    3. Cohesive offensive line
    -- Assuming that they're all back next season, the Bears offensive line did a better job protecting Jay Cutler after a consistent line was used. Now, if that same line can use off-season workout and training camp to improve their cohesiveness, they will be in good shape come September.

    4. Israel Idonije, D.J. Moore and Corey Wootton
    -- Izzy tied Julius Peppers for the lead in sacks. Moore had four interceptions and one of the best sacks of the season, when he used all of his 5-foot-9 frame to take down the 6-foot-3 Lions quarterback Drew Stanton. Wootton had the best sack of the season, as he was the last man to sack Brett Favre. All three showed flashes of brilliance and the potential to do great things for the Bears.

    5. Matt Forte as an experienced, all-around player
    -- It took Mike Martz a while to figure out how to best use Forte, but as soon as he did, Forte became the Bears best offensive threat. He can run and catch -- but as we learned against Seattle, he cannot throw. But with Martz having a full off-season to come up with schemes for Forte, he should be able to have another killer season in 2011.

    But not all is rosy at Halas Hall. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about next season.

    1. High expectations
    -- The Bears surprised everyone but themselves by winning the NFC North, as few pundits believed they would place higher than third in the division. Now, they've shown what they can do, and both the media and Bears fans will expect great things next season. What will the pressure do to them?

    2. Age on defense
    -- Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs all earned Pro Bowl spots in 2010. They're also all over the age of 30, an age when stars have start to decline.

    3. There might not be a season at all. You may want to pour yourself a drink for this last one.

    If a collective bargaining agreement is not reached by Mar. 4, the owners will lock out the players. The two sides are far apart in negotiations over issues like TV revenues and lengthening the season, and the rhetoric coming from both sides is becoming more pointed. The most recent dust-up had the players association pitted against CBS and the owners, as the NFLPA produced a "Let Them Play" ad to be aired on CBS. However, CBS, not wanting to upset the owners who decide TV contracts, refused to air the ad.

    These is no reason to believe that the two sides will come to an agreement by March, so a long, painful lockout is likely.

    And just when the Bears were getting good ...