If the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants are the past two Super Bowl champions, how far away can the Bears actually be?
The Bears were NFC North champions ahead of the Packers in 2010 and only lost 21-14 in the NFC Championship Game even with third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie playing most of the second half.
As for the newly crowned Super Bowl champion Giants, they were below the Bears in every NFL power ranking with six games left in the regular season. The Bears were 7-3 after beating the Chargers, while the Giants were 6-4 after losing to the Eagles and Vince Young -- the same Eagles team the Bears beat in Philly with Michael Vick at quarterback.
Even two weeks after Cutler suffered his broken thumb against the Chargers, the Bears (7-5) on a two-game losing streak still were just one spot behind the Giants (6-6) in both the ESPN and Brian Billick (Fox) power rankings.
If Cutler had not suffered the injury, the Bears would have finished 11-5 or 10-6 and made the playoffs. The Giants needed to pull that annoying last-split-second time-out trick that wiped out a tying field goal by the Cowboys to win in Dallas, then had to beat the Cowboys in Week 17 just to make the playoffs.
The Giants won it all with a wide-receiver corps almost as modestly acquired as the Bears -- Victor Cruz was undrafted in 2010; Mario Manningham was a third-round pick (95th overall) in 2008; Hakeem Nicks was a first-round pick, but 29th overall, in 2009.
Manningham, who made a heroic catch to start the winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, was taken 25 picks after the Bears selected Earl Bennett. Manningham had 39 receptions for 523 yards and four touchdowns this season. Bennett had a similar season shortened by an injury -- 24 receptions for 381 yards -- except of course, for the touchdowns. Bennett had just one. In four seasons, Manningham has 18 touchdowns. Bennett has six.
That seems to be the difference between a team like the Giants and a team like the Bears. The Giants make big plays in the clutch and they score touchdowns. Bears wide receivers combined for nine whole touchdowns this season -- undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher leading the way with three. Without a ''No. 1'' guy, the Giants' wide-receiver corps combined for 21 touchdowns.
Is Eli Manning that much better than Jay Cutler? Is Kevin Gilbride that much better than Mike Martz? Is Tom Coughlin that much better than Lovie Smith?
I'm pretty sure most Bears fans would say, No. No. And Yes.
Lovie Smith sure seemed like a better coach than Tom Coughlin when Jay Cutler was healthy. But it seems like it was more than just bad luck that separated the two. Coughlin has a knack not only for keeping his quarterback healthy (Eli Manning has started 130 consecutive games since taking over for Kurt Warner in 2004), but for having his team primed to take advantage of every opportunity late in the season.
Of course, if Cutler stays healthy and Manning was injured, it would be non-issue. But Cutler didn't stay healthy. And Manning didn't get injured. After two unlikely Super Bowl titles, there must be something to it. It's hard not to be encouraged when a team of destiny wins the Super Bowl. But you can only take it so far. We've seen enough to know that the Bears might be further way than we think.