It’s week 9 of the 2012 NFL season. It’s not that long ago. The Chicago Bears had just finished off a 51-20 beat down of Tennessee, and things couldn’t have been better.
At 8-1, the Bears were second only to the Falcons in the NFC, and EVERYONE just knew they could beat the Falcons, who weren’t for real, after all.
Better yet, their arch nemeses, the Green Bay Packers, were struggling to rebound, sitting two full games behind Chicago, despite winning the earlier meeting between the teams (the Bears’ only loss to that point). How could anything go wrong?
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It’s week 15 of the 2012 NFL season. It’s not that much later than before. Chicago has lost 3 in a row and 5 of their last 6. The Green Bay Packers have clinched the NFC North. If the playoffs started today, Chicago would not be in them. In fact, the Bears stand 8th in the NFC and actively need help if they are to get there.
So what happened to those poor Bears. Well, a few things happened. First, their schedule got considerably tougher. The first two losses of their current bad streak came against Houston and San Francisco. They were being called “marquis matchups” and “statement games.” The statements all got made by the opponents, especially the 49ers, who drilled the Bears 32-7.
This animal would rather have his head trapped in a large container than watch another Bears’ collapse.
What else? Well, show me a team that suddenly starts losing and I’ll show you a team with too many names on the injury list (ask the Baltimore Ravens, who could field an entire defense off their injured list right now). Yup, the Bears are no exception. Quarterback Jay Cutler got hurt against the Texans and had to sit against the 49ers. Jason Campbell was supposed to be the insurance against that, but it’s a lot to ask of your backup to come in and play in your toughest games of the season. The Bears are also missing WR Earl Bennett and have numerous injuries on the offensive line, and have been shifting players around to different positions just to put 5 guys on the field.
Things are just as bad on defense. LB Brian Urlacher, the team’s defensive leader is out. So is Tim Jennings, their best defensive back. Even the special teams hasn’t been immune. Kicker Robbie Gould got placed on injured reserve earlier this week.
But the biggest problem facing the Bears may have been one of perception. Their two game lead over the Packers was a bit illusory. The Packers are the better team. They proved it in week 2 and again this week when they beat the Bears to clinch the division.
The Bears’ season went south just as soon as they had to start playing tougher teams.
The Bears’ defense, while very good, is not a shutdown unit the way the 49ers’ or Steelers’ defenses are. Instead, they are a playmaking defense. They force turnovers. They create opportunities.
One problem with that is that when your playmakers, like Jennings, get hurt, you stop making as many plays.
The other is that good offenses protect the football and your offense, which is used to getting good field position, has to play with a long field every time.
The Bears may yet make the playoffs. Their last two games, against Arizona and Detroit, are eminently winnable. The logjam in the NFC figures to open up a bit. Minnesota has yet to play Houston and Green Bay. They ain’t winning those games.
The Giants still have Baltimore. Dallas and Washington play each other. If the Bears win their last two to finish 10-6, odds are they will find themselves with a wildcard bid.
Still, that’s a far cry from a first round bye and home field advantage, things that were seriously being contemplated in Chicago just over a month ago.