Twelve teams make the playoffs in every NFL season, but in any given year there are rarely more than four or five — in a good year, maybe six teams — with a legitimate shot at playing in a conference title game or Super Bowl.
There are the elite, and merely the very good.
Right now the 2018 season’s elite appear to be the Rams, Saints, Chiefs, Patriots and Chargers.
The very good are Pittsburgh, Houston, Minnesota, Seattle and maybe Dallas.
Then there is the Chicago Bears, with an elite defense but an unstable offense capable of being very good or less than competent.
What makes the Bears so interesting is that the potential of that offense is quite high, but whether they can achieve it by this year’s playoffs, in the playoffs, next year or never is all on the table.
One got a sense around Halas Hall Wednesday that even the coaches and players know that’s where they’re at right now, and that’s why there appears to be an extra sense of importance in the Rams' visit to Soldier Field Sunday night.
How the Bears stack up against the Rams will define their place in the NFL hierarchy as the stretch drive to the playoffs begins.
When it comes to star power, the Rams are loaded with Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Brandin Cooks and Andrew Whitworth on offense, while Rams defenders Nadamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, Lamarcus Joyner, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are all stars on the other side of the ball and Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in football.
Bears RT Bobby Massie won’t face a lot of one-on-one matchups with Donald Sunday night, but asked if he looks forward to facing him, his answer makes my point very clearly.
“Absolutely, because it's competition," Massie said. "That's what football is all about. So you play well against him, and your game will get elevated. That's what you've got to understand.
“I mean, he can be a game changer. Obviously if you've seen him, if you don't get four sets of hands on him, at times he's going to destroy the offense.”
The one player in the game today who might have given him a run for this year’s Defensive MVP Award is the Bears' Khalil Mack. But after Mack played hurt against the Dolphins and Patriots and missed the next two against the Jets and Bills, that race is over.
Coming into the season, Rams CB Marcus Peters was the best at his position — a reality Bears coach Matt Nagy knows well since he practiced against him every day for three years in Kansas City.
“He's great at seeing tendencies. He's great at being able to react. He has unbelievable ball skills and he's confident," Nagy said.
“He had some great years, and he's able to continue to do that now.”
Interestingly, while Peters has been off a bit this year, the Bears' Kyle Fuller has emerged as possibly the best corner today in football.
Jared Goff was in Mitch Trubisky's shoes one year ago, and now he’s a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Trubisky has an even slightly higher ceiling because of his running ability, but he is not the player Goff is yet.
The Bears can match Whitworth, Cooks, Suh, Brockers, Joyner and Talib with Kyle Long (when healthy), Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan and Eddie Jackson.
The one player the Bears can’t equal is Gurley, and Nagy knows that can be a problem.
“He’s such a big man, and when he’s running, he’s very explosive. It’s hard to bring him down with one man, tackling-wise," Nagy said.
“He’s got great hands. He understands the pass game. He can run routes in empty formation. He does it all.”
Gurley is the reason that with both Chicago and Los Angeles on their best days, the Rams are probably still the better team, although their defensive stars have not played nearly as well as the Bears’ have this year.
There’s no guarantee but it seems likely 10-6 will win the NFC North this year, and the Bears still have a clear path there even with a loss to the Rams.
It’s not the win that would mean so much to the Bears vs. the Rams, it’s an identity they would dearly love to claim.