For a while on Monday night, an awful sense of déjà vu descended over the Chicago Bears camp. As quarterback Jay Cutler was flattened by Detroit Lions' marauding defensive end Ndamukong Suh, minds went back 12 months. Then, the Bears were on a roll, looking like they were going to romp away with the NFC North for the loss of four games at most. Then Cutler got injured and they were stuck with a combination of Caleb Hanie and whichever McCown brother was available that week. Even though Cutler returned after Christmas, the season was lost.
As Cutler peeled himself from the turf and headed for the locker room, it seemed as if fate had struck again. The Bears have been in charge of their division this year and could well be the NFC's representative in New Orleans come February. What would they do without Cutler, though?
The 2012 Chicago side is a more resilient one, though. The defense, so unreliable for much of last season, now leads the NFL. Offensively, the acquisition of Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffrey has given them the downfield threat they didn't have before.
And in Jason Campbell they have a backup quarterback who, but for injury, would probably still be starting somewhere in the league. They never looked like letting the game slip on Monday and, with Cutler back, the NFC North is now theirs to lose and they are a very attractive 6.25/1 to win the Conference.
The late game on Sunday is possibly the most significant of the weekend. New Orleans against Denver would be high on most people's list of desirable games anyway, with the prospect of a Drew Brees v Peyton Manning shootout. This week, though, sees the Saints' coaching staff begin their return to full strength, as interim head coach Joe Vitt comes back after being banned for the team's first six games. The start of the season has hardly been an unmitigated success without him, but they have won their last two games and if this run continues under Vitt they could be serious playoff contenders yet and are currently 4.57/2 to reach the playoffs
For several years the NFC West was the worst division in the NFL, competitive only because someone had to end up in the post-season no matter how many games they lost. This year is entirely different, with three of the four teams having winning records. On Monday the top two take on one another, with San Francisco (5-2) visiting Arizona (4-3 but on a three game losing streak).
It is a must win game for both sides as the division is so tight (Seattle are also 4-3 and St Louis 3-4) that it may be decided by the tie break provisions, which is results against other division members. Surprisingly, the Rams hold the edge here, at 2-0, whilst the Seahawks are 0-3. This means that whichever of the 49ers (1-0 divisional record) and Cardinals (1-1) wins will take control of the division. At 16.5 the Cardinals look a value bet to win the division.
Back Chicago Bears at 6.25/1 to be NFC Champions