For a team in first place, the Chicago Bears sure are looking like a mess at the moment. And things could get even uglier.
Beat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, and that just might turn them back in the right direction. Lose and, well, they'd better hope they have a parachute to stop the free fall.
"I'm confident that we have the right guys in the locker room to do it," Bears star receiver Brandon Marshall said.
So he's not flinching. There sure is plenty of angst around Chicago, though, and there's no shortage of sources for it.
Between quarterback Jay Cutler's concussion, the sheer meltdown on the offensive line and the sudden vulnerability of a dominant defense, these are tense times for a team that was riding high just a few weeks ago. Back-to-back losses by the Bears (7-3) to Houston and San Francisco took the shine off a 7-1 start. Now, here come the Vikings (6-4), a team that's right behind them in the NFC North race.
They meet twice in the next three weeks, and no one needs to remind Minnesota's Jared Allen how big an opportunity this is.
"I think the sense of urgency is where it needs to be at, from the standpoint of what we have ahead of us," he said. "I mean, look at the way the division is playing out. I mean, 10-6 might not be good enough if Green Bay stays (hot)."
The Bears were scorching before this recent rut. Now, they're tied with the Packers for the division lead and hardly looking like a championship contender at the moment.
Monday's 32-7 loss to the 49ers was particularly ugly on just about every front, and it's no given a healthy Cutler would have made a big difference.
He missed the game after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Houston's Tim Dobbins the previous week. Backup quarterback Jason Campbell struggled in his place, throwing for just 107 yards with two interceptions and fumbling twice.
Then again, the way the line was blocking, he had no chance.
The Bears allowed six sacks Monday night to bring their total to 34 on the year, second only to Arizona (44), and that group will have a different look this week.
Starting left guard Chilo Rachal was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list, meaning Chris Spencer or Edwin Williams could start. There could be a shakeup at the tackle spots, too, after right tackle Gabe Carimi and left tackle J'Marcus Webb struggled against the 49ers.
"What we're not seeing is that consistency in performance," offensive coordinator Mike Tice said. "It's too much like the teeth of a saw. It's up and down, up and down. What you need is that consistency."
Things were no better on the other side of the ball, with the defense getting picked apart by quarterback Colin Kaepernick in his first start. In the end, the Bears did nothing to quiet skeptics questioning just how good they really are.
They're now 0-3 against the top teams on their schedule, and it's not like they're in for much of a breather this week, with Allen and league rushing leader Adrian Peterson coming to town. Both players have had their share of success against the Bears. Allen, bothered by minor groin and shoulder injuries, has 13 career sacks against Chicago. Peterson holds the single-game rushing record by an opponent with 224 yards at Soldier Field as a rookie in 2007.
Coming off a bye after beating Detroit, the Vikings are staring at a gantlet of their own as they try to keep their sights on a playoff berth. Along with the upcoming games against Chicago, they play Green Bay twice and visit Houston for good measure. Even with a trip to St. Louis remaining, the schedule includes three division leaders and four teams with a combined 26-13-1 record at the moment.
Having Percy Harvin back would help. The Vikings' top receiver and kickoff return ace, he's working through a badly sprained left ankle that sidelined him for the Detroit game.
The Vikings were also keeping an eye on Peterson, who's been bothered by a sore left ankle.
"It is an opportunity for us and we know it's going to be tough, but that's what you live for," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "You live for the second half of the season to be able to control your own destiny, to be able to make a play for the playoffs, and that's exactly what we have in our hands. We've got to be fully focused on what we're doing and handle it one week at a time. It's going to be fun. It's fun in November and December when you still have playoffs at stake."
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