The road to the postseason is never easy, but a rash of injuries suffered last weekend have added a sharp incline to the path of the Chicago Bears.
They hope to take advantage of the Seattle Seahawks' road issues in this Sunday's meeting and keep a grasp on first place in the NFC North.
Following a six-game winning streak, the Bears were outscored 45-13 in consecutive setbacks to the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, scoring just one touchdown over that span.
It didn't help things that quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a concussion versus the Texans and did not play in the Monday night loss to the Niners. However, Cutler returned to lead the Bears to a 28-10 victory over the rival Minnesota Vikings this past Sunday.
Cutler threw for just 188 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but was an efficient 15-of-17 passing in the first half as the Bears built a 25-3 lead by halftime on the strength of a field goal, two one-yard TD runs by backup running back Michael Bush and Cutler's 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth.
"Jay's one of the best quarterbacks in the league," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "Everybody needs their stud quarterback playing; we're no different. We expected him to give us a boost. I thought he played outstanding ball."
The victory pushed the Bears to 8-3 on the season, a game ahead of the Green Bay Packers for first place in the NFC North. Chicago will host Green Bay on Dec. 16 following a road test in Minnesota.
"This was a big win for us because you can't lose division games at home," said Smith.
However, Chicago welcomes Seattle to town dealing with a slew of injuries suffered against the Vikings. Starting running back Matt Forte and defensive back Charles Tillman both sustained knee injuries, while wide receiver/returner Devin Hester suffered a concussion.
Forte was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday, while Tillman and Hester both sat out.
Smith's biggest problem may be dealing with an offensive line that lost guard Lance Louis to a season-ending knee ailment while seeing guard Chris Spencer go down with a knee injury of his own.
One advantage Chicago does have is that it is 5-1 at home this season, while Seattle brings a poor 1-5 road record into this encounter.
Coming off their bye, the Seahawks dropped their third road game in a row after losing to the Miami Dolphins 24-21 on a last-second kick. Seattle had a two-game win streak snapped and fell to 6-5, behind only the 8-2-1 San Francisco 49ers in for first place in the NFC West.
While rookie starting quarterback Russell Wilson played well, the defense struggled yet again and head coach Pete Carroll took some of the blame for how his team came out.
"We made too many mistakes and that's just not doing the job the right way," Carroll said. "I gave them a bunch of time off and maybe we're too young to do that, I don't know."
Seattle has struggled with putting away close games, with its average margin of defeat this season sitting at 4.8 points.
It wasn't that close last season with the Bears hosted the Seahawks on Dec. 18. Seattle fell behind early, but logged five turnovers and 31 second-half points to surge for a 38-14 triumph.
The Seahawks have won five of their last seven versus the Bears.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While the availability of Forte, Tillman and Hester will certainly play into this game, Smith and Cutler know that the offensive line will have a new look. The unit was already going through some changes prior to the Vikings game, with Spencer taking over at left guard and Jonathan Scott replacing Gabe Carimi at right tackle.
Spencer, though, exited in the second quarter and was replaced by Edwin Williams, who was active for the first time this season. Louis' exit, meanwhile, pressed Carimi into starting duty at the guard spot, where was out of position but performed well.
Even more aggravating for the Bears was that Louis' ailment was suffered on a questionable block by Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who was fined this week for the play.
Following Sunday's win, Cutler talked about how he has to alter his approach when changes are made to the offensive line.
"When you have a line of new guys in there, I want to get rid of the ball fast, find my first read and take it," he said. "We also want to limit sacks. Sacks really kill those guys up front. The more I can do to get rid of the ball quickly and run the ball. If we have to design routes to shorten things up, so be it. We want to limit sacks and keep their confidence high."
Cutler's confidence was high when looking wide receiver Brandon Marshall's way. He hauled in 12 catches for 92 yards versus the Vikings, giving him 1,017 receiving yards on the season. Marshall became the first Bears wideout to reach the 1,000-yard mark since Marty Booker in 2002 and he ranks fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and third in catches with 81.
While most No. 1 receiver use either size or speed to their advantage, Marshall excels at putting himself in the right position to make catches.
"I'm not the fastest guy. I don't jump the highest. So one of the things my father taught me was how to use my body, be crafty," noted Marshall. "I don't run the best routes but I'm really confident and put myself in the position where I can be quarterback friendly. Jay and I just see the game together the right way and I'm just happy to be with a quarterback that really understands the way I play the game."
Marshall should be keyed on by Seattle's secondary, which features a pair of players with reported suspensions hanging overhead.
According to NFL.com, both Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are appealing four-game bans for testing positive for the banned substance Adderall, a drug that has netted a number of players suspensions this season.
Sherman leads the Seahawks with four interceptions this season, while Browner, a Pro Bowler last season, has three. The two released a joint statement on Wednesday.
"To allow our focus to remain on football, during the appeal process we will refrain from any further public comments regarding this situation. Thank you for your consideration on this matter," read the statement, which was posted on Seattle's website.
Seattle can't afford to lose either after giving up 435 yards against Miami. The Seahawks are giving up 351.7 yards per game over their last six, negating their early-season performances that have helped the club still rank fifth in total defense at 309.4 YPG.
The 'Hawks do rank third in the NFL against the pass.
With the defense struggling, Carroll's club has had to lean on the offense and special teams. Wilson has been up to the task, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in last weekend's loss while setting an NFL rookie record with 16 straight completions at one point. That was just one shy of the club record set by Warren Moon versus Oakland on Nov. 1, 1998.
Wilson, who completed 21-of-27 pass attempts without a pick with 224 yards, posted a passer rating of 125.9, setting another league record by a rookie with three straight games of a 125-or-better rating.
Seattle also has a dangerous scorer when the offense isn't on the field in returner Leon Washington, who took a kickoff versus Miami 98 yards for a score that put the Seahawks in front before the Dolphins scored 10 unanswered points.
The kickoff return for a score was the eighth of Washington's career, tying him with Josh Cribbs for the most all-time. Washington also ranks third in the NFL with a 31.9 return average on kickoffs and fourth in the NFC with a 9.5 average on punts.
"That's Leon. I know he's going to do something special every time he gets the ball. I truly believe that," said Wilson.
While Seattle has had Chicago's number in the past, a trip to Soldier Field is probably the last thing the dome residents need at this point.
Though the Seahawks have won their last two regular-season trips to Chicago, they have twice been bested at Solider Field in the divisional playoffs, including a meeting in the 2010 playoffs. That seems to indicate that Seattle struggles when Chicago's fans are bringing the noise.
A victory this weekend by Seattle would show it is a playoff-caliber team and would keep the club in the hunt for the division title, but that is easier said than done given recent road issues.
"You don't know how this is going to go, but we do know we need to take care of business. We don't have many chances left, we have five games to get it done, and we can't just lock in that we're going to win all our home games either. It ain't going to be that easy. But right now, it's Chicago," said Carroll.
The Bears are one of only two teams this season that give up fewer points per game than the Seahawks and home cooking should work in their favor this Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Seahawks 13