NFC East: NFC North
The Chicago Bears relegated themselves to the spoiler role by virtue of their 5-7 mark, while the Dallas Cowboys enter Thursday's game trying to exorcise their December demons in an attempt to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Bears reporter Michael C. Wright breaks down the matchup with Cowboys reporter Todd Archer:
Wright: You always hear about Dallas' struggles in December, and I remember how the Cowboys struggled in the cold last season around this time at Soldier Field. Is there really anything to that, and, if so, what's gone into those struggles?
Archer: The Cowboys swear there is nothing to it. I'm kind of with them, but I do think the recent past does affect this team to the point at which they expect something bad to happen. Ultimately, however, I think it has come down to them just not having been good enough. That's the real issue. They have been bad in late-season games because they're just good enough to be good enough and have not been able to raise their level of play when the games matter most. I don't think it has anything to do with choking or the other team wanting it more. It comes down to they haven't had enough good players and coaches to get the job done. Will that change this season? I can't call it. Even when they were 6-1, I had doubts about this team, especially defensively. They don't have enough playmakers and they can't scheme their way to enough stops. The offense will have to carry the day if the Cowboys are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. I do believe the offense is good enough, but is it good enough to carry the defense?
Jason Garrett entered the season coaching for his future, and I think it's still up in the air even with an 8-4 record. I didn't think Marc Trestman would be coaching for his future in his second season, but do you think he will return in 2015?
Wright: I believe he'll be back. Bears general manager Phil Emery wanted to provide security for Jay Cutler with the hiring of Trestman because the quarterback, prior to 2013, had played in three different systems for three offensive coordinators over a four-year period. Once Emery put Cutler with a coach and a system he believed in, the general manager opted to lock up the quarterback for the long haul with a seven-year deal worth $126.7 million. I just don't see Emery blowing up everything after all he's done to build around Cutler with the staff, free-agent additions, draft picks and the quarterback's long-term contract. Now, obviously, there's no guarantee the decision on Trestman won't be taken out of Emery's hands. But that would be the only way I could see Trestman not making it to his third season, and I do believe that decision could be taken out of Emery's hands depending on how Chicago finishes out the season. Three of this team's last four games are at Soldier Field, and if the Bears lose every one of those outings, I could see ownership forcing Emery to part ways with Trestman.
Dallas' offensive line from this vantage point has been one of the strengths of the team. What happened against the Philadelphia Eagles, because it appeared the Cowboys really struggled to protect Tony Romo?
Archer: It was their worst game of the season, with the overtime loss to the Washington Redskins a close second. They all had issues. Travis Frederick snapped the ball too early on a third down, leading to a sack. Ronald Leary gave up two sacks. The run game was slowed for the first time. This is the first time they have really been punched in the nose. It's been all ice cream and candy for these guys for the bulk of the season. Three of them lead Pro Bowl voting at their positions -- Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Frederick. It will be interesting to see what happens this week. The Bears have 29 sacks, and 23 of them come from four players, so it's not about tricking anybody. The Cowboys were beaten physically by the Eagles' front. Each one of them had a breakdown that led to multiple poor plays. For the Cowboys to win, they have to follow a specific formula: run the ball, control the tempo of the game and convert on third down. That puts a lot of pressure on the line to perform, but there's a reason three of its members were first-round picks. I think they will be a lot better this week, and not just because they can't be worse.
A few short years ago when you thought of the Bears, you thought of defense. Now, they are near the bottom in yards allowed and giving up 28.1 points per game. What in the name of Brian Urlacher has happened?
Wright: Todd, a combination of factors have led to what you're seeing, and I could probably go way over our word limits trying to explain. So let me give you the condensed version. First off, it starts with the draft, through which Emery has selected 11 defensive players since 2012. Of those players, three -- Shea McClellin, Jonathan Bostic (due to injury) and Kyle Fuller -- are starters. Four of the defensive picks came in 2014, while three more are no longer with the team. You've also got to factor in those players were drafted to eventually replace aging stars such as Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Urlacher. Sure, the Bears freshened up the front last offseason by bringing aboard Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, in addition to drafting players such as Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, but the team didn't do much to address issues on the back end, where poor safety play has long been a problem, dating all the way back to Lovie Smith's tenure (the Bears don't value safeties and refuse to spend on the position). Basically, I say all of that to say this: The Bears are seriously lacking in the talent department on defense, which is partially a result of all the resources allocated to the offensive side of the ball.
The Cowboys have missed the playoffs each of the past four seasons, but it seems this team is a little different than the squads from years past in the way it seems to handle the roller-coaster ride of the season. Why is this team different, and do you believe the Cowboys absolutely have to make the playoffs for Garrett to receive a new contract?
Archer: I'm not sure it is different just yet. They got on a really good run after losing the season opener, winning six games in a row. Since then, they have gone 2-3. As a whole, this is not a hugely talented team, but I say that mostly because of the defense. Maybe some of those defensive players were playing over their heads earlier in the season and now don't have gas in the tank. Rolando McClain has been their best defender, but I do wonder how much he has in the tank. They haven't been able to affect the quarterback enough, and that matters even more in big games late in the season. This is the pivotal game of the season. Win this one and they know they can contend. Lose this one and they'll need help to make the playoffs, most likely. And that brings us to Garrett. I do think he needs credit for what this team has done considering the low expectations entering the season, but if they don't make the playoffs it will be a failed season. And it would be the third time in his four seasons they entered December with a winning mark and didn't make the playoffs. I know Jerry Jones wants Garrett to be his version of Tom Landry, but I don't know for sure he will get a new contract if he misses the playoffs for the fourth straight season. There's a lot on the line for everybody: the players, the coaches and the front office.
I look at the Bears on offense and I see nothing but talent. Cutler can throw it as well as anybody. He has Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. He has Matt Forte. He has Martellus Bennett. What's missing with these guys?
Wright: Obviously quite a bit considering this team went six consecutive games without scoring a first-quarter touchdown until last week's loss to the Detroit Lions. But for me, it all starts with the quarterback, and Cutler received "elite" money in his new deal but certainly isn't performing at that level. Cutler leads the NFL in turnovers (20), and opponents have scored a total of 85 points off the club's 23 giveaways. So Cutler is the biggest issue.
But Trestman certainly hasn't helped out the quarterback with his play calling. Forte is averaging 4.1 yards per attempt, yet the club handed off to the running back just five times in last week's loss to the Lions. I think last season the Bears caught teams by surprise because nobody knew what to expect from Trestman's offense. Then, after the team put an entire 2013 season on tape, opponents figured out how to shut down the Bears.
Chemistry plays into it, too. When there are players in the locker room who believe Cutler looks only to Marshall and Bennett in the passing game, what's the incentive for the club's other pass-catchers to go all-out running routes? There are several issues plaguing the Bears on offense, but Cutler is the most significant. Nobody wants to admit it, but the Bears made a huge mistake in signing him to the new deal.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Of the eight writers from the Philadelphia Daily News who made predictions for Sunday's Eagles-Vikings game, seven predicted the Eagles to win. Imagine that. I'd love to go out on a limb, but I don't want to mislead anyone. The Eagles will win, 27-13.
Now, I'm curious to read your predictions. Please use the comments section to provide a prediction and one sentence to back it up. Seriously, I know how long-winded some of you guys are. The person with the closest score will be featured prominently in my next mailbag column. That's right, this is huge!
Best of luck to you. And thanks to all the Vikings fans who found their way to the blog this week. Glad to have you guys. By the way, plenty of good seats still available at the Metrodome.