Arkush: Bears, Packers clearly class of NFC North

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) talks to Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (69) after an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Chicago. The Bears won 31-30. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Bears' 2013 season ended with the team snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the final 30 seconds, allowing a far less than 100 percent Aaron Rodgers to drive Green Bay 86 yards on 15 plays and score a game-winning touchdown on a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on fourth and 8 with 38 seconds remaining in the game.

Talk about a dagger.

Early in free agency the Bears were feeling pretty good about themselves for signing Lamarr Houston, Ryan Mundy and Willie Young after being forced to release Julius Peppers due to salary cap restraints.

Then the Packers signed Peppers, completely out of character with how they’ve built their team, and it seemed clear Green Bay was suddenly more improved than the Bears.

That all changed with the Bears signing of Jared Allen.

Understand that with Rodgers, the Packers were one of the best teams in the NFC. Without him, they weren’t as good as the Bears. But, with or without him, their defense was vulnerable, sorely in need of a player who could bring the unique abilities of a Peppers.

If Peppers has even 75 or 80 percent left, with a healthy Rodgers the Packers are vastly improved.

The Bears made a quantum leap on offense last year and, at times, appeared ready to reclaim supremacy of the NFC North from the Packers until their defense fell completely apart.

If the offense stays healthy again in 2014, with the return of Jeremiah Ratliff, Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams and “Peanut” Tillman, the additions of  Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Ryan Mundy, and the shifts of Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic to the SAM linebacker position, the Bears may be even more improved than the Packers.

So how do they stack up?

Even the most vocal Jay Cutler fans have to give a clear edge to the Packers at quarterback. Not only is Rodgers the best in the league, with the free agency defection of Josh McCown the Bears could be vulnerable if Cutler gets hurt again.

Running back is a slight edge to the Packers. Yes, Matt Forte is a Pro Bowler, but one with six years of NFL wear and tear, reaching the point in NFL running backs’ careers where they bear very close scrutiny. The Bears have nothing behind him.

Eddie Lacy is also a Pro Bowler for the Packers and will get better entering just his second season, and the Packers are deep behind him with Johnathan Franklin and James Starks.

Wide receiver is a slight edge to the Bears. The duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery is as dynamic as you’ll find in the league right now but Jordy Nelson and Cobb are an excellent duo as well, and Jarrett Boykin is better as a three or four than anyone the Bears have.

Tight end is a clear edge to the Bears with Martellus Bennett until the Packers replace Jermichael Finley, and with a healthy Bryan Bulaga for the Packers the offensive lines are a draw.

Until we know more, the defensive lines are also a draw. I’d take Allen and Houston over Peppers and B.J. Raji, but Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy, Datone Jones and Josh Boyd offer a lot more promise than the Bears youngsters.

The linebackers are also a draw. Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams pretty much cancel out Clay Matthews and Nick Perry and both clubs have a bunch of questions after that.

The Bears get a slight edge in the secondary with Pro Bowlers Tillman and Tim Jennings being a little bit better than Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. Both teams need a lot of help at safety, although the Packers' Morgan Burnett is the best on either team.

At least for now, picking a winner is just too close to call. What we do know is, with the signings of Peppers and Allen, 2014 may be the best season yet for the NFL’s oldest and best rivalry.

• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and ChicagoFootball.com. Contact him at harkush@chicagofootball.com or on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.

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