One of the high moments of the Chicago Bears' 2010 season came in a playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks this past January. The reigning NFC champions find themselves at their lowest point of this year's campaign, however, with a rematch between the two teams on the horizon.
The spiraling Bears try to end a potentially-crushing three-game losing streak when they host the surging Seahawks Sunday at Solider Field, while also attempting to remain a viable candidate in the conference Wild Card race.
Chicago had been cruising towards a second consecutive playoff berth after ripping off five straight victories, many of which came in impressive fashion, during a hot midseason stretch. But quarterback Jay Cutler went down with a broken right thumb in the team's 31-20 triumph over San Diego in Week 11, and the Bears have gone into an ill-timed tailspin as a result.
Setbacks to Oakland and Kansas City marred by three-interception outings by replacement signal-caller Caleb Hanie began Chicago's downturn, but the Bears appeared primed for a bounce-back in last week's matchup at Denver. The club held a 10-point lead with just over two minutes to go, but the ever-resilient Broncos rallied to send the contest into overtime before claiming an improbable 13-10 win on Matt Prater's 51-yard field goal in the extra session.
Two costly late miscues by running back Marion Barber, filling in for an injured Matt Forte, contributed to Chicago's latest defeat. The veteran backup curiously ran out of bounds with the Bears seeking to drain the clock in the waning stages of regulation, enabling Prater enough time to successfully make a game-tying field goal, then fumbled in Denver territory during overtime with his team in position to try a deciding kick.
The three losses have placed Chicago 1 1/2 games behind Atlanta and one back of Detroit for the NFC's two Wild Card spots with three remaining in the regular season.
"We're on the outside looking in," Bears head coach Lovie Smith stated. "You lose three games in a row this time of the year, you're normally not in a great position. But we are in position still, and that's what we have to keep in mind.
"We've got to get a win. The Seattle game was an important game no matter what happened [in Denver]. But of course it's [now] just more of a situation where we have to get a win."
Seattle, on the other hand, enters Sunday's clash riding some serious momentum after registering its fourth win in five weeks with Monday's 30-13 manhandling of hapless St. Louis. The 2010 NFC West title-holders are still a long shot to advance to the postseason, however, trailing the Falcons by 2 1/2 games and the Lions by two in the current standings.
"Early in the season, we had a hard time playing four consistent quarters," Seahawks rookie wide receiver Doug Baldwin remarked. "Now we're finding a way to do it consistently for four quarters, and it's showing up."
Excellent production from Marshawn Lynch has certainly played a big part in Seattle's second-half turnaround. The hard-nosed running back bullied the Rams for 115 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries to eclipse the century mark for the fifth time in six weeks, and he's amassed a league-high 706 rushing yards and seven scores over that span.
Lynch mustered a mere two yards on four attempts in the Seahawks' 35-24 loss to the Bears at Soldier Field in this past winter's NFC Divisional Playoffs, a game in which Cutler threw for 274 yards and hit on two long touchdown passes. Seattle was able to come through with a 23-20 decision when the teams squared off in Chicago during the 2010 regular season, however, behind a defense that sacked Cutler six times.
The Seahawks' above-mentioned win in Week 6 of last season gave them an 8-4 advantage in non-playoff meetings with the Bears and was the team's first positive outcome in Chicago since 1999. Seattle was routed by a 37-6 count in a 2006 visit to Soldier Field and also dropped a 25-19 verdict to the Bears as the home team in a 2009 bout.
Chicago has prevailed in each of the two postseason encounters between the teams, posting a 27-24 home overtime win in the 2006 NFC Divisional Playoffs in addition to last January's victory.
Smith has gone 4-2 against Seattle during his eight-year tenure in Chicago, while Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll owns a 2-2 mark versus the Bears and is 1-1 in head-to-head tests with Smith. Carroll lost to Chicago while in charge of the New York Jets in 1994 and guided New England past the Bears in 1997 when then at the helm of the Patriots.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Carroll has rode Lynch (969 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 10 total TD) hard over the course of the season's second half, but the workhorse back has been no worse for the wear. Monday's matchup marked the sixth straight game he's been given at least 22 carries as the clear centerpiece of the Seattle offense, and responded with another prolific effort in addition to extending his touchdown streak to nine consecutive contests, tying a franchise record set by former league MVP Shaun Alexander. Lynch's consistent production has also helped out quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (2479 passing yards, 11 TD, 12 INT), who composed a passer rating of over 95 for a second week in a row after throwing for 224 yards and a score while hitting on 21-of-32 attempts against the Rams. The offseason addition also hasn't been intercepted in two straight outings while continuing to maintain a rapport with Baldwin (45 receptions, 3 TD), who's taken over as the team's No. 1 receiver with free-agent pickup Sidney Rice out for the season and finished with 93 yards and a touchdown on seven catches last week. Big target Mike Williams (16 receptions, 1 TD) had 123 yards on 10 grabs in the Seahawks' regular-season besting of the Bears last year, but the former first-round pick has been more of an afterthought this year as second-year pro Golden Tate (23 receptions, 3 TD) has earned himself a bigger role. While a front line that's without three opening-week starters due to injuries has done well in creating holes for Lynch, it's 41 sacks allowed in 2011 is among the highest total in the league.
Lynch figures to face a sterner challenge this week from an experienced Chicago defense that's held opponents to a scant 80.5 rushing yards per game over its last eight assignments and did well in limiting the Broncos' ground-based arsenal to 124 yards a week ago. Linebackers Brian Urlacher (83 tackles, 3 INT) and Lance Briggs (93 tackles, 1 INT) combined for 20 tackles to lead the charge and form one of the most renowned duos in the game, having been to 13 Pro Bowls between them, while havoc-wreaking end Julius Peppers (33 tackles, 9 sacks) is making a strong case for all-star honors after recording his seventh sack in an eight-game span in last Sunday's loss. He's the headliner of a deep assemblage of linemen that accounted for five sacks of the Broncos' Tim Tebow in Week 14, with rookie tackle Stephen Paea getting to the young quarterback twice and interior partner Henry Melton (19 tackles, 7 sacks) netting a sack for a third straight tilt. A secondary anchored by physical cornerback Charles Tillman (86 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) will give up some yards, as the Bears rank just 28th in pass defense (256.5 ypg), but the team has garnered a respectable 17 interceptions on the year and is adept at keeping big plays to a minimum.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Though Chicago's injury-plagued offense managed a subpar 245 total yards against the Broncos, there were some positives from last week's performance. The Bears piled up 159 rushing yards in defeat, with both Barber (389 rushing yards, 6 TD) and reserve back Kahlil Bell (97 rushing yards, 5 receptions) effective subbing for the valuable Forte, who's set to miss a second straight game with a knee sprain, while Hanie (502 passing yards, 2 TD, 6 INT) did not commit a turnover after being picked off a troubling six times in his first two go-arounds as an NFL starter. The marginally-talented backup only threw 19 passes as the team went run-heavy, however, and nearly half of his 12 completions were dump-offs to Bell. He was still sacked on four occasions by Denver one week after being dropped to the turf seven times in a startling home loss to Kansas City, and isn't as quick in releasing the ball or decision- making as the rocket-armed Cutler. If Hanie gets sufficient time to survey the field, he does have a dangerous deep threat to work with in wide receiver Johnny Knox (36 receptions, 2 TD). The third-year speedster is averaging nearly 20 yards per catch and toasted Seattle for 120 yards on five receptions when these teams met in last year's regular season. For the season the Bears rank ninth in rushing offense (122.5 ypg), but they've averaged 143.1 yards per game via the ground since Week 4.
Hanie will be trying to make headway against a Seattle defense that's been pretty solid containing the run and has made great strides against the pass during the team's upswing. Enemy backs are averaging a modest 3.7 yards per carry against a sturdy front seven led by tackles Brandon Mebane (44 tackles) and Alan Branch (25 tackles, 1 sack) and the linebacker trio of David Hawthorne (88 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) in the middle and Leroy Hill (76 tackles, 3 sacks) and rookie K.J. Wright (48 tackles, 2 sacks) on the outside, while former CFL standout Brandon Browner (46 tackles, 5 INT, 19 PD) has logged four interceptions in the last three weeks playing alongside promising rookie Richard Sherman (43 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) at cornerback. Their sound coverage skills have enabled the Seahawks to yield under 200 net yards through the air three times over the past four games despite the team lacking any difference- making pass rushers other than veteran end Chris Clemons (37 tackles, 9 sacks). Coordinator Gus Bradley blitzed Cutler profusely in Seattle's win over the Bears last season, and expect the lightly-tested Hanie to receive the same treatment come Sunday.
KEYS TO THE GAME
It's no secret that both of these teams will be intent on running the football extensively in this game, with Lynch emerging as Seattle's meal ticket on offense and the Bears still saddled with a backup quarterback who's struggled to generate a downfield presence. Whichever one is more efficient at moving the chains via the ground game should have a decided edge here, though it's entirely possible that neither gains much of an advantage considering the run- stopping efforts of the two defenses.
The Bears called runs on nearly 60 percent of their offensive plays last week, but better balance would be in order to get the team out of its present funk on that side of the ball. For that to occur, however, Hanie is going to have to prove he can make some plays with his arm and avoid the damaging turnovers and sacks that have put Chicago in undesirable positions. With three starts now under his belt, it's time for the training wheels to come off.
The Hester factor. Chicago possesses the NFL's premier return man in three-time Pro Bowler Devin Hester, a player who can change both field position and the momentum of a game in the blink of an eye. The proven game-breaker, who took a punt back 89 yards for a score when these clubs opposed one another in last year's regular season, is averaging a league-best 18.5 yards in that category and has three return touchdowns in 2011, and he'll be facing a Seattle team that's allowed a pair of scores on punts in its 13 games.
With neither of these participants fielding explosive offenses and the Bears especially struggling to put up points in Hanie's starts, expect a tightly- played contest that will likely hinge on a few key plays. Chicago's going to need to be both resilient and creative to overcome the injuries to Cutler and Forte, but fortunately has a pair of players capable of making a sizeable impact in the incomparable Hester and ultra-clutch kicker Robbie Gould, who's 6-for-6 on field goal attempts of 50 yards or beyond this year. Add in a rugged defense that's continued to perform at a high level during the losing streak and is more than capable of preventing Lynch of putting together another massive outburst, and Chicago seems to have the ingredients necessary to getting back on the winning track as long as it's not littered with breakdowns and mistakes. Other than a home upset of Baltimore last month, Seattle's strong run hasn't exactly come against the stiffest of competition, and a matchup on the road against a desperate and determined opponent could prove to be a more difficult challenge for Carroll's group to navigate.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 16, Seahawks 10