It wasn't so long ago that Bill Barnwell, Grantland's forward-thinking pigskin prognosticator, was considered among the Chicago Bears' biggest detractors. After the Bears made it all the way to the conference finals in 2010, Barnwell had them listed as one of eight teams with 'no shot of competing' in 2011. He thought the new kickoff rules would mitigate Chicago's sizable advantage on special teams, that the Bears recovered a flukey amount of fumbles and that they wouldn't again be so lucky with (a lack of) injuries. Well, the Bears had seemingly laid the prediction to waste by winning seven of their first 10 games in 2011 before Jay Cutler's broken thumb and the complete and total ineptitude of backup Caleb Hanie ruined everything but Barnwell's forecast.
I gave Barnwell some guff last season for what I perceived as an unprovoked ribbing of the Chicago fanbase both during games on Twitter and in his weekly reviews at Grantland. Barnwell comes from Football Outsiders, a place where objectivity and statistical analysis is all that matters. That doesn't mean FO's writers are without bias, though: Barnwell still has to defend the system, the same one that made him a favorite of Bill Simmons and landed him a coveted new gig. If the preseason projections said the Bears would be bad, Barnwell was, in a sense, indebted to defending it.
Fast-forward a season: lest anyone thought the anti-Bears slant would carry from one year to the next, Barnwell has been in the Bears' corner to an almost laughable degree in 2012, at least when you acknowledge his previous work. His column on the weekly referendum facing Jay Cutler was widely lauded, and on Monday he placed the Bears No. 1 in his after-six-weeks power rankings.
That's right: the NFL's most statistically-inclined mainstream voice thinks our Bears are the best team in football. Is it possible?
Chicago enters Monday night's tilt with the Lions at 4-1 and in first place in the NFC North. The Bears are a 6.5-point favorite against Detroit, and most expect they'll be 7-1 in time for a hellacious two-week stretch against the Texans and 49ers in Week 10 and Week 11. Nothing in the NFL is ever as easy as it seems, and the Bears could certainly slip up against the Lions, or against Cam Newton and Panthers the following week. You never know in the NFL, but Chicago's strong start and seemingly cupcake-filled immediate schedule is enough to let one's imagination run wild.
Since before the season started, I've maintained the same thing: the Bears are good, but so are lots of other teams. The NFC is particularly treacherous, though Barnwell shoots holes in the other contenders with relative ease: the undefeated Falcons have routinely narrowly escaped against weak competition, Houston was smacked by Green Bay in Week 6, the Giants and 49ers have lacked consistency on differing sides of the ball.
So it was with power vested in him by the Sports Guy that Barnwell proclaimed the Bears as the NFL's top dog. One problem: does anyone actually believe it?
Herein lies my only issue with the Bears as the NFL's best team: it doesn't really pass the sniff test. The Bears are a well-rounded squad let by a destructive defense that's setting the league ablaze at the moment, though their torrent pace isn't exactly sustainable. In the last three games, Chicago's defense has scored five touchdowns. To think: Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman each have more touchdowns than Calvin Johnson. If that stat remains true for one more week, the Bears will very likely roll on Monday night.
This isn't so much a vote against the Bears or a vote for any other team, just an observation that, even in this football-obsessed city, it's hard to say with any conviction that the Bears should be No. 1. I know I wouldn't be confident if Green Bay was next on the schedule this week, and the same can be said for handful of other teams. The idea behind 'power rankings' is inherently silly, something Barnwell and most others that put them out realize. The Bears may very well have been the league's most impressive outfit through the first six weeks, though that isn't necessarily a precursor for future success.
Regardless of the polls, it's hard to be anything but thrilled with how the Bears have started this season. The offense isn't coming along as quickly as some anticipated, but it's still serviceable while the D has been otherworldly. The smart money says Jay Cutler and offense will continue to improve even if the defense takes a small step back, which should off-set the magic of scoring multiple non-offensive touchdowns week.
Detroit is actually a fun little test: there's talent on the Lions, they just haven't been able to string it together yet. Cutler's prime-time terrors are also on the table, though he's been far more stable on Monday night than Sunday night. A beat-down will instill even more swagger in a fanbase starving for a winner; a loss or something close to it against Detroit and perhaps we have to re-evaluate.
What's certain is that the Bears are where they want to be entering Week 7. There's a lot of football in front of us, but it's impossible to find fault with this blazing start.