A road map to 9-7
Here's how the Bears can slam the brakes on this trainwreck of a season
CHICAGO -- Common sense tells you that the Chicago Bears, like a frustrated commuter on the Kennedy Expressway, are going nowhere very, very slowly. Seven more weeks of Bears football will breeze by like the ride from O'Hare to downtown during a thunderstorm.
It goes without saying that the pain will likely continue Sunday night when the Philadelphia Eagles come to town to kick the Bears' 3-point, home-underdog butts. Next week, the Vikings are going to blow them out in Minnesota, and that will pretty much do it as far as faint postseason hopes, right?
But it will get worse, won't it? The Bears still have home games against Green Bay and Minnesota and a trip to Baltimore after that, which means nine or 10 losses and, possibly, some major firings to go along with a fan revolt, and the city-backed resurrection of a second, competing NFL franchise, simply out of spite.
With the Bears in tatters, we can all imagine Mike Shanahan fighting Bill Cowher for the right to measure Lovie Smith's office for new drapes, while Jerry Angelo is wondering if there is a return policy on Gaines Adams and a way to get sole drafting rights to every eligible male from Abilene Christian and Vanderbilt.
Common sense, and a working knowledge of football, says the Bears are doomed.
In all seriousness, there is no harbinger that would portend the Bears (4-5) are still contenders for a playoff berth in the NFC, especially since Football Outsiders gives them a 1.4 percent of winning a wild-card spot based on 10,000 simulations. The Bears, who have struggled in all facets of their game, have a predicted number of victories of 6.3, according to the Football Outsiders, who possibly count the Detroit Lions and/or St. Louis Rams as just a third of a normal team. Those two are guaranteed wins, which basically means the FO simulation thinks the rest of the games are losses.
While the playoffs are next to impossible, the goal of finishing strong at, say, 9-7 or even 10-6 is, well, completely feasible.
Forget the 86 points hung up by the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals. The fact remains that those are the only truly bad losses, and while they are fresh in our minds, they don't define this team. In the other three defeats, the Bears had a chance to win late. They weren't pretty losses, to be sure, but the Bears could be 6-3 or 7-2 with a little luck.
After a promising 3-1 start, is it hard to believe the Bears are almost completely out of contention a week before Thanksgiving?
"Hard to believe? No, it happens," Jay Cutler said Wednesday. "Do we still think we can bounce back and make a run? Absolutely. We've got a lot of good guys in that locker room, talented guys. Obviously, this is a huge game for that this weekend."
The Bears are 4-5 for a reason, because they have problems in nearly every facet of the game, from costly injuries to Cutler's cognitive dissonance in the red zone. Every coach on the staff, aside from maybe special teams maven Dave Toub, is under fire, thanks to consistent mental breakdowns under pressure. If Smith is fired, which is unlikely but possible, the Lake Forest Kinko's will be hopping with thick-necked, stubby-fingered customers as his coaches look for new work as well.
But there are seven games left, whether you like it or not, and every one is a must-win, even the ones (Minnesota twice) that are seemingly unwinnable.
"We can't look ahead, though," Cutler said of the Bears' nonexistent margin for error. "We've got to keep our focus one game at a time. Once we start looking at who we have next, or what's happening in the standings, you lose track of what you're trying to accomplish."
Cutler is right. The Bears don't need to obsess over the schedule. That's my job. Here is my orange-and-blue-colored glasses take on the remaining seven games.
On paper, this seems to be a mismatch. Philadelphia has a blitzing, aggressive defense (their defense-adjusted value over average, or DVOA, is third-best in the league, according to Football Outsiders). Donovan McNabb has a young, energetic group of skill players who have compiled 12 touchdowns of 20 or more yards.
But they're still young, and running back Brian Westbrook is out. That means LeSean McCoy is the featured back, and the former Pitt star, along with receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, could have problems against a veteran defense that is known for causing turnovers. Then again, none of those three have lost a fumble this season, and McNabb has thrown just four interceptions and lost one fumble.
If Cutler can get on a roll, and the defense can get two turnovers, the Bears can pull out a win. Cutler said he knows he has to play it safe in the red zone, where he got picked off twice last week.
"When we put ourselves in a good position, we've got to be careful with it," he said. "If we've got to take three points, we've got to take three points."
The defense shored up against San Francisco last week, and given some extra rest, I think this proud unit can hold the Eagles to less than 30 points in the first half, which would be a recent accomplishment of late.
Prediction: Bears 24, Eagles 16
One of the things I love about the NFL, aside from finding out in September which truck company is going to bombard me with nonsensical "manly" advertising during broadcasts, is that you know never know what is going to happen. Yesterday's lock is today's upset.
But this won't be one of those surprises. Vikings at home? Forget about it. The Bears drop back under .500 thanks to the real(ly good) Adrian Peterson. Cutler will have a rough day against the Vikings' defense, but will keep his interceptions to less than Peterson's touchdown runs. Hopefully.
Prediction: Vikings 38, Bears 16
St. Louis Rams
Easy win. I'll save some space here and use Twitter's 140-character limit to summarize this game: Cutler goes off, throws for six TDs against future L.A. team. Yay. (Still 74 characters to spare.)
Prediction: Bears 56, Rams 20
Green Bay Packers
Cutler played his worst in the season opener at Lambeau Field. I thought Angelo was going to throw himself off the top row of the press box at halftime.
In that first half, Cutler was even more skittish than he was against San Francisco, if that's possible. No way that happens, um, for the third time.
In all seriousness, the Packers' offensive line makes the Bears' line look like the Hogs from the old Redskins. This will be a post-Thanksgiving feast for Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown and Tommie Harris. Aaron Rodgers should be an inspiration to Cutler. You can get knocked around and still complete some passes. Though, it helps to have Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.
Prediction: Bears 20, Packers 13
This is the wild card of the Bears' schedule. The Ravens are hard to figure out, and have a tough time against good teams. Well, that last part bodes well for them, because Chicago is hardly a reliably good team.
But Baltimore could be pretty banged up by this game, with Indianapolis this week, followed by a home game against Pittsburgh and a road game at Green Bay. They have a chance to get right against Detroit before playing host to the Bears.
Baltimore is pretty strong offensively and still good defensively, but not on special teams. Maybe that's the edge the Bears could take advantage of, if Cutler is still upright by then. I think the Bears could pull off the upset here, especially if Baltimore is out of the AFC playoff hunt.
Prediction: Bears 17, Ravens 16
Yeah, still not convinced the Bears can beat Minnesota, even in blistering cold late December weather. I think Brett Favre torches the Bears for old-times' sake, throwing for four touchdown passes while Cutler tries to one-up him, to no avail. Still, if you're a fan, this will be a fun way to get frostbite as a painful 2009 comes to a close for all Chicago sports fans who don't give a puck about the Blackhawks.
Prediction: Vikings 35, Bears 6
Prediction: Bears 37, Lions 6
So there you have it. The Bears finish 9-7, the best possible ending to what has been a pretty disappointing season. Aside from the three receivers (who should still get a fair share of blame for their mistakes), Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, no young players have really stepped up to give the franchise hope for next season.
Will another 9-7 season be enough to stem the anti-Lovie, anti-Angelo nihilism movement that is enveloping Chicago?
Well, as Cutler said, you can't look ahead that far. We've got to focus on the now, and that's Philadelphia on Sunday night. There's plenty of time to tear down authority later.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
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