Paul Ladewski

Bears Search For New Heroes

Created on Apr. 10, 2013 8:58 PM EST

The Chicago Bears like to think of themselves as postseason contenders, and the numbers make a legitimate case for them. At 10-6, they were the only NFL team to reach double figures in victories and not make the playoffs. In the last three seasons, their 29 wins rank behind only the Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers among NFC teams.

But what happens if they advance to the playoffs sooner than later? Does the core group have what it takes to advance deep into the tournament? More to the point, in a league that places a premium on athletic talent, are there enough game-breakers to achieve the ultimate goal?

In 2010, when the Bears last made the postseason, any number of veterans could be counted on to make a difference when the stakes were high. Quarterback Jay Cutler, feature back Matt Forte, placekicker Robbie Gould and wide receiver-kick returner Devin Hester played some of the best ball of their careers late in the season. On defense, end Julius Peppers, cornerback Charles Tillman and linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher were capable of something special in key moments.

Two-plus seasons have passed since then, which can be an eternity in football years. Since then, several go-to guys have grown a bit long in the tooth especially on the defensive side. Urlacher is 34 years old now. Peppers will turn 34 on the eve of the NFC championship game. Briggs and Tillman are 32 each.

Peppers and Tillman were Pro Bowl selections last season, Peppers partly out of habit, Tillman by performance. At this late stage of his career, Peppers may be more effective in smaller doses. Urlacher may not even come back for 2013. He's coming off the worst season of his career, a decline that left knee surgery hastened last summer.

Likewise, Gould and Hester probably have seen their best days at the other side of the ball. The 31-year-old Gould (strained left calf) finished the season on the inactive list, his first absence in seven years. Hester lost some of his nerve, according to a growing number of critics, and his trademark explosiveness went with it.

That leaves Cutler (29), Forte (27) and wide receiver Brandon Marshall (28) on the shrinking list of difference-makers in their prime years. The question remains whether Cutler can be consistent enough and Forte can be durable enough to step up when needed.

As general manager Phil Emery said recently, the challenge for him and his staff is to acquire and develop the next wave of impact players in the months ahead. Defensive tackle Henry Melton may have arrived already. Some in the organization are convinced defensive tackle Stephen Paea, defensive end Corey Wootton and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery have what it takes to reach that level in the not-too-distant future.

Otherwise, this may be a team that's all dressed up for the playoffs but with no place to go when it gets there.

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