Published December 23, 2015
In two seasons as coach, Lovie Smith has been unable to end the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' lengthy playoff drought.
About to suffer back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 11 years, the Chicago Bears haven't reached the postseason since Smith guided them in 2010.
With only pride on the line, Smith's Buccaneers can avoid a third consecutive defeat by handing his former team a fourth straight loss Sunday in Tampa.
Both teams were eliminated from playoff contention last week. Tampa Bay (6-8) fell 31-23 at St. Louis on Thursday and learned over the weekend it would miss the postseason for an eighth straight year. Chicago (5-9) saw its chances end with a miserable 38-17 defeat at Minnesota last Sunday.
That takes most of the luster away from this matchup, though the Buccaneers are poised to avoid a fifth straight losing season. They can start by avenging last season's 21-13 loss at Chicago in Smith's first meeting since the Bears fired him in 2012.
"I know their personnel very well of course," Smith said. "I understand the team we're playing. ... There won't be any family reunions. We're looking to get the win."
Though Tampa Bay's season will end next weekend at Carolina, it has tripled its win total from 2014, boasts a potential NFL rushing champion in Doug Martin and top overall pick Jameis Winston has thrown for 3,422 yards with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He set season highs with 29 completions, 50 attempts and 363 yards last week.
''We've seen major strides that we've taken,'' Smith said. ''We're not there yet."
The defense has faltered while allowing 55 points in two games after yielding 67 to win three of the previous four. The Bucs held talented Rams rookie Todd Gurley to 48 yards on 21 carries but allowed middling quarterback Case Keenum to go 14 of 17 for 234 yards with two TDs and no INTs.
Tampa Bay has forced one turnover in the last four games and eight for a minus-6 differential while going 3-4 at home.
"There's not going to be any shutting it down for the season or anything like that," Smith told the Bucs' official website. "We're going to work this week as hard as we work any week to make improvements and play our best ball."
Tampa Bay could improve against a Chicago offense that's averaged 18.0 points in the last five weeks. Jay Cutler has thrown two TDs in each of the past two games but was sacked eight times.
With Matt Forte and rookie Jeremy Langford splitting time, the Bears rushed for 181 yards in two games since gaining 170 in a 26-20 overtime loss to San Francisco in Week 13.
Receiver Alshon Jeffery has caught a TD pass in two straight games but could sit with a hamstring injury.
''We'll find out who in that locker room has some character and wants to finish and who doesn't,'' said Cutler, who is 3-0 against Tampa Bay.
Chicago's also struggled to keep points off the board, yielding an average of 29.3 in three games since giving up 15.5 while winning three of the previous four.
The Bears shined during a 17-13 win at Green Bay on Thanksgiving, then allowed the 49ers' Blaine Gabbert to dart 44 yards for the tying TD and throw a 71-yard overtime winner the next week. They fell behind 14-0 in a three-point loss to Washington in Week 14 and gave up four touchdown passes to Teddy Bridgewater last Sunday.
''These four words always ring true in my brain, and that starts from me down basically - focus, intensity, preparation and then really the mental toughness to create all those things on a consistent basis,'' said coach John Fox, whose team did not have a player selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1998.
''So we're not there yet.''
Chicago ranks 26th allowing 125.9 rushing yards per game and could have its hands full with Martin, second in the NFL with 1,305 yards - nine behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Martin has averaged 6.3 yards per carry in the last five contests.
With a season-high nine catches and 157 yards against the Rams, Mike Evans is the first Tampa Bay player to begin his career with two straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons (1,046). He scored the Bucs' lone TD at Chicago last year.