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Bye, bye Bears optimism

Quick: Name the Bears’ three most important players.

We’ll give you a second to think of three names.

Another second …

OK, time’s up.

Was Jay Cutler on your list?

How about Lance Briggs?

Charles Tillman, anyone?

You could make a strong argument for including Brandon Marshall or Matt Forte in the top three, but Cutler, Briggs and Tillman belong in the top five no matter what. Now, the Bears must find a way to keep their season afloat without Cutler and Briggs for at least the next month, and with Tillman battling a nagging knee injury.

Maybe veteran backup quarterback Josh McCown can help the Bears weather the storm, but history suggests otherwise. The Bears are 2-6 without Cutler since 2009, and that was back in the days when the team had a defense that was able to tackle.

The bye seems like a good time for some stream of consciousness.

How bad is the Bears’ pass rush? This bad: Three individual players have registered more sacks than the entire Bears defense through Week 7.

The Bears have nine sacks in seven games, which is good for 30th in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs lead the league with 35 sacks.

As for the players who have outpaced the not-so-scary Monsters of the Midway: Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis already has 11½ sacks, while Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs and Mario Williams of the Buffalo Bills have 10 sacks apiece. Tamba Hali of the Chiefs has matched the Bears with nine sacks.

The Bears might be undisciplined in terms of gap discipline, but Marc Trestman’s team has proved to be pretty smart in terms of avoiding penalties.

After 7 weeks, the Bears have committed only 4.43 penalties a game, which is fourth-fewest in the NFL. The only teams to commit fewer penalties have been the Miami Dolphins (4.17), Minnesota Vikings (4.17) and Indianapolis Colts (4).

The New York Jets are worst in the league with 9.14 penalties a game.

If you happen to run across Trestman, maybe let him know that he has another running back on his roster by the name of Michael Bush.

Has anyone else noticed how the “sky is falling” crowd suddenly has stopped fretting about Marshall? Then again, they’ll be back whenever the Bears’ No. 1 receiver has another quiet game or two and expresses a desire to improve.

I can’t speak for Marshall’s previous stops in Denver and Miami, but in terms of his Bears career, he has been nothing remotely close to a locker-room cancer. Here’s hoping he continues to be a good teammate and a loud advocate for mental health.

We could be eating our Thanksgiving turkeys before Cutler and Briggs are back on the field. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Bears’ playoff hopes are dead.

Take a look at the team’s remaining nine games, divided into clusters of three. (Please, nobody tell Lovie Smith about our new way of looking at games.)

Cluster 1: at Green Bay, vs. Detroit, vs. Baltimore

Verdict: OK, so this probably won’t be pretty. If the Bears can win one of these games with McCown under center, they’ll be at five wins for the season.

Cluster 2: at St. Louis, at Minnesota, vs. Dallas

The Rams lost Sam Bradford for the season and now will turn to Kellen Clemens, who makes Josh McCown look like Peyton Manning. Oh, and did you happen to see Josh Freeman start for the Vikings this week? Beat up or not, the Bears should be able to muster a couple of victories here and be at six or seven wins on the year.

Cluster 3: at Cleveland, at Philadelphia, vs. Green Bay

By mid-December, Cutler and Briggs could be back, and the Browns and Eagles could be out of playoff contention. Of course, this is all a giant hypothetical, but it’s possible that the Bears could be sitting on eight or nine wins with a chance to clinch a playoff berth in the regular season finale against the rival Packers.

Does anybody else sense a motto for the second half of the season?

Bears football: It could be worse!

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