For the Chicago Bears, the playoffs begin now.
But unlike most tournaments, winning may not be enough to keep the Bears' season alive.
All slumping Chicago can do at this point is try to take care of things on the field and step one is snapping a three-game losing streak this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Not only did the playoffs seem like a foregone conclusion for the Bears earlier this season, but a 7-1 start had the squad in control for the NFC North crown. Those thoughts are gone now, with the Green Bay Packers having claimed the division title for themselves with last weekend's 21-13 road victory over Chicago.
Even more pressing for the Bears is the fact that they are now on the outside of the playoff picture thanks to losses in five of their past six games. They are one of four teams in the race for the conference's second wild card spot -- the 9-5 Seattle Seahawks own the first berth -- and don't control their own destiny.
"There are a lot of 8-6 teams and that is the message and how it affects us," said Chicago head coach Lovie Smith. "We haven't gone over every scenario and how it happens; we just know there are a lot of us in it. For us, it's about finishing 10-6. In order to get to 10-6, it's just about beating Arizona and getting to 9-6."
Smith's squad was limited to just 190 yards of offense versus the Packers, with quarterback Jay Cutler throwing for 135 yards on 12-of-21 attempts. He completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who ended with six catches for 56 yards, and was also intercepted while getting sacked four times.
Chicago was also whistled for 10 penalties for a season-high 91 yards.
"We had opportunities throughout the game that we didn't take advantage of," said Smith. "We were up there at first, but we had some things there that changed momentum. Again, it's very disappointing and we have to find a different way to make it to the playoffs now."
The Bears do seem to have a favorable schedule down the stretch as they visit 5-9 Arizona before ending the season against a hosting Detroit team that has lost six in a row.
The extension of the Lions' misery was thanks to the Cardinals, who halted their own nine-game slide with a 38-10 home victory over Detroit last weekend.
Arizona won for the first time since Sept. 30, the final victory of a 4-0 start. The Cardinals scored four touchdowns off four Lions turnovers, including a pair of interceptions returned for scores by corner Greg Toler and safety Rashad Johnson.
"This game's about winning, and when you go through a stretch like we did it's tough," Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "It's really hard, but our guys stuck together."
Beanie Wells took advantage of some great field position to score touchdowns from five- and one-yard out in the second quarter before logging his career high-tying third touchdown of the game with a 31-yard run in the fourth.
Wells ran for 67 yards on 17 carries for an offense that only accounted for 196 yards in the game. Ryan Lindley won his first career game, throwing for 104 yards with an interception.
Still, the Cardinals' defense helped the club log its highest point total of the season and avoid losing 10 in a row for the first time since 1943 when the franchise was, coincidentally, located in Chicago.
This series dates back all the way to 1920, when both clubs were located in Illinois. The Bears lead the all-time matchup 57-27-6 and have won five of the past seven encounters.
The Cards won the most recent meeting 41-21 in Chicago in 2009, but the Bears have won three of the four games played in Arizona.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Touchdowns have not come at the pace the Bears would like and the club ranks 16th in the NFL with 22.9 points per game. Chicago has scored nine touchdowns in its last six games and has been held without a rushing score four times in the last five outings.
Running back Matt Forte has run for 903 yards on 212 carries, but has scored only three rushing touchdowns on the season. Michael Bush leads all Chicago backs with five scores, but was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday due to a rib injury.
Even through the struggles, Marshall has shined after being reunited with Cutler this past offseason. He leads the league with 107 catches, already a Bears single-season record, and has a career-high 1,398 receiving yards with 10 touchdowns.
Marshall is on the verge of breaking Marcus Robinson's franchise single-season record of 1,400 receiving yards set in 1999.
Bears defensive end Julius Peppers had a pick-six and sack in his last meeting with the Cardinals and has logged five sacks over his last six games against them.
Two ball-hawking cornerbacks will take the field for this game, including Chicago's Tim Jennings. He leads the NFL with eight picks on the season, though he hasn't had one in the past three games.
Cards defensive back Patrick Peterson, meanwhile, has an interception in four straight games and has seven picks on the season. He is the first Cardinals player to log an interception in four straight games since Aeneas Williams in 1994 and is aiming to become just the fifth player in NFL history to have a streak of five straight games with a pick.
Peterson was not among the Arizona defensive backs to score last weekend. That list included Toler, who took his a franchise-record 102 yards for a momentum- changing score with 30 seconds left until halftime.
Sunday's game also served as a highlight to Arizona safety Adrian Wilson's career. He came up with a sack against the Lions and become only the sixth player in NFL history to reach 25 sacks and 25 interceptions in a career.
"He's worked very hard for this organization for a long time and been a very good player, as his evidenced by his Pro Bowls and all the recognition he's gotten," said Whisenhunt. "To think that he is only the sixth player in the history of the league to do that, that's pretty staggering. I couldn't see it happening to a better guy."
After becoming the eighth rookie quarterback to win a game this season, Lindley gets the call again this weekend. He seems to have no where to go but up as his passer rating sits at 45.0 and he is averaging just 4.3 yards a completion with six picks to zero touchdown passes.
Arizona's inefficiency in the passing game has limited stud wide out Larry Fitzgerald to 61 catches this season for 674 yards with four touchdowns. However, fellow receiver Andre Roberts has been a solid compliment, notching career highs with 56 catches, 697 yards and five touchdowns.
This matchup isn't likely to feature a plethora of offense. Not only do the Bears and Cardinals feature two of the lower-ranked offenses in football, but both have performed well on the defensive side of things.
Arizona ranks fourth in the league against the pass and leads the NFL with 22 interceptions. The Bears are right behind with 21 picks and are tops in football with 37 takeaways to fuel the league's fifth-ranked defense.
Cutler has thrown for 630 yards with five touchdowns and two picks in two career starts versus Arizona, which is holding opposing quarterbacks to an NFL-low 68.0 passer rating.
The Bears certainly have more to play for, but was a Cardinals team that features a number of players battling for jobs next season.
"We're down, but we're not out," noted Cutler. "There are two games left. We need to remind the guys that there are two games left, and there is a lot of football left. We've got to get back together."
Chicago, though, has zero momentum and Cutler's play and attitude this season have raised more questions than provided praise. A loss here would put the final nail in the Bears' season and the Cardinals may just have the defense to force enough mistakes and pull off the upset.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 16, Bears 14