The Chicago Bears fan base breathed a collective sigh of relief last Monday when news broke that the team and running back Matt Forte had finally agreed on a long-term contract.
The deal -which is for four years and worth up to $31.5 million ($17.1 million guaranteed)- ended Forte’s long-standing holdout and came literally hours before the 4:00 PM ET deadline that players have to sign their franchise tender.

With the distraction of Forte’s contract dispute officially behind them, the Bears can now prepare to make a serious push for their first Super Bowl ring in almost 30 years. A healthy and happy Forte will be instrumental for their run game, but Chicago has other pieces in place that make them one of the most talented teams in all of football.

With the acquisition of Brandon Marshall back in March, Chicago finally filled the gaping hole at their No.1 receiver position. Quarterback Jay Cutler has not had a legitimate No.1 threat at his disposal since joining the team in 2008, and his reunion with former Broncos teammate Marshall could not have come at a more opportune time.

In their last two seasons in Denver, Cutler and Marshall combined for 206 catches, 2,590 yards and 13 TDs. The two-year span was the best in Marshall’s career, pretty impressive when you consider that he’s put up 1,000+ receiving yards in five straight seasons.

Cutler is fully recovered from the broken thumb that he suffered in a Week 10 victory over the San Diego Chargers. The injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season and put a kibosh on the Bears playoff hopes. If the offensive line gives him enough time to throw the ball down the field to the 6’4” Marshall, Chicago’s pass offense will be putting up a lot more than the 188.2 yards it was averaging last season (26th overall).  

The one thing holding the Bears back is that they happen to play in the loaded NFC North with the Packers and Lions. Other than the Vikings, every team in the division is capable of making a deep playoff run. Detroit’s an up-and-coming squad that’s full of young stars while Green Bay is coming off of a 15-1 regular season and has the game’s best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.

But there is one key aspect that sets the Bears apart from their divisional foes: Their balanced attack.

With Jahvid Best’s lingering concussion issues, who knows how much production the Lions will get out of their ground game? And with nothing to keep the defense honest, the secondary will be able to zero in on Calvin Johnson and force quarterback Matthew Stafford to look elsewhere. Chances are Megatron will still end up as the top wide out in all of football but it definitely won’t be easy for him this year with Detroit’s depleted run game.

The Packers also have several question marks at their running back position. Yeah, they’ve got James Starks, but his numbers began dropping off as the season progressed and his only TD came in Week 1. Starks’ lack of production coupled with a nagging ankle injury caused head coach Mike McCarthy to rely heavily on backup Ryan Grant down the stretch. Although he’s still currently a free agent, it’s unlikely that Grant will be playing for Green Bay in 2012. Who will McCarthy look to this season if Starks struggles again?

Green Bay’s playoff loss exposed them for what they are: An unbalanced team that relies too heavily on their passing game to win. Shut down their aerial attack and they don’t stand a chance. Easier said than done considering the numbers that Rodgers put up last season, but at least the Bears seem to finally have the firepower to keep up if the game comes down to a shootout.

It also needs to be mentioned that the Packers had the last-ranked defense in the NFL last year and the unit has taken a step back this offseason with the suspension of defensive end Anthony Hargrove for his involvement in the Saints’ bounty program. If Green Bay doesn’t address their atrocious pass defense (which gave up 299.8 pass yards per game in 2011), another early playoff exit is imminent.

The Lions may be without one of their main defensive stoppers for quite some time, now that DE Cliff Avril failed to sign his franchise tender by the July 16th deadline and has publicly stated that he will not report to training camp. Detroit’s defense wasn’t one of their strengths last year (23rd overall), so they can’t afford Avril holding out and missing most of the season.

There’s been some concern expressed over Chicago’s aging defense, especially considering the fact that last season ended with Brian Urlacher limping off the field with a knee injury. But Urlacher says that he’s healthy, Lance Briggs finally got paid, and Julius Peppers is way too freakish of an athlete to have another disappointing year (37 total tackles in 2011).

The area that Bears fans should be most worried about is their inconsistent O-line. Although their front five improved quite a bit as the season progressed, they still gave up 49 sacks- putting them at the bottom of the league rankings. On a brighter note, their blocking allowed Chicago’s backs to finish the year with a 4.4 rushing average (9th overall).

Which all goes back to Matt Forte. In a way, how far the Bears go in 2012 ultimately depends on what kind of a year #22 has. He finally got the long-term deal that he’s long been advocating he deserves. That means there’s no more excuses; no more public outcries at the injustice of your backup making more money than you. Bears fans want to see those dollar signs turn into production on the field.

And Forte is certainly capable of it. The guy led Chicago in rushing and receiving yards last season despite missing four games. While this only strengthened the argument that the Bears were in desperate need of a No.1 receiver, it also stressed how large of a role he played in the team’s overall success. Forte is entering this season as a bona fide top-five back in this league, which is why it was absolutely imperative that the two sides wrapped up their contract negotiations and didn’t let their financial differences carry over into training camp.

Michael Bush is a very respectable running back in his own right; but he’s no Matt Forte. It’s no wonder that Forte was upset that the former Raider was making more money than him. And Marion Barber the year before that. And Chester Taylor the year before that. None of these players are even close to the same caliber as Forte, but yet they were making almost twice what he was.  A player’s salary should reflect the contributions that he makes to the team, and Forte was getting paid more like a benchwarmer than a star. He was willing to take a stand to get the money he felt he deserved and even suggested he would go elsewhere if the Bears didn’t pay up.

Chicago would have taken a major hit if it lost Forte to a holdout. You just simply can’t replace a guy who means that much to your offense. But with their star back under contract for at least four more years, the Bears can now set their sights on bringing a Lombardi trophy back to the Windy City.