Oasis in desert? The Chicago Bears have lost five of their past six games and probably need to win their final two in order to reach the playoffs. Otherwise, they will become the second team since 1990 -- and the fourth since 1978, according to Cold Hard Football Facts -- to miss the postseason after starting 7-1. Also, the Bears have not missed the playoffs after a 7-1 start since 1948. There appears to be widespread national opinion that the Cardinals won't provide the Bears much resistance; the Bears are 5.5-point favorites on the road and all 14 ESPN experts picked them to win. But you wonder if that sense is based more on the way the teams played earlier this season. The Cardinals are coming off a 38-10 victory over the Detroit Lions, showing how they can overcome a punchless offense by causing turnovers. And despite a 5-9 record, the Cardinals have a legitimately tough defense. Check out the next nugget for details.
Jay Cutler, who has struggled when opponents send extra pass-rushers, faces a blitz-happy Arizona defense Sunday.
Passing issues: The Bears would be well-advised to avoid passing downs by whatever means necessary. The Cardinals have one of the NFL's most frequent and effective blitz defenses, and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has struggled against extra pass-rushers all season. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton has called for at least five rushers on 41.5 percent of opposing dropbacks this season, the NFL's second-highest rate. Opposing quarterbacks have the league's second-lowest Total Quarterback Rating against the Cardinals' blitz (23.8), taking 22 sacks, throwing nine interceptions and completing only 47 percent of their passes against it. Cutler, meanwhile, has a 15.8 QBR against extra pass-rushers. He has completed only 50 percent of his passes while throwing five interceptions and taking 12 sacks. Given the state of the Bears' offensive line, it's reasonable to envision the Cardinals swarming Cutler whenever they're in passing situations.
Tough trip: The Minnesota Vikings want to keep their playoff hopes in gear by defeating a Houston Texans team that will be playing to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Vikings are 0-5 on the road this season against teams that currently have winning records. Quarterback Christian Ponder has struggled in those games, with a combined 18.7 QBR. Tailback Adrian Peterson's pursuit of Eric Dickerson's record for rushing yards in a season will continue, and we should never underestimate the power of external factors in a player's performance. Peterson spends his offseasons in Houston and said this week he will have more than 100 family members and friends as part of his entourage at Reliant Stadium.
Brrr: More than a foot of snow fell this week on Lambeau Field, and temperatures for Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans are expected to remain under 30 degrees. The Packers clinched the NFC North last week at Soldier Field but have plenty left to play for, including a first-round bye and potentially home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Although the Packers have struggled at home in recent playoff games, it's worth noting that quarterback Aaron Rodgers' career QBR is better when the temperature is below freezing (75.6) than it is when it's above (71.5). The Titans' pass defense has allowed 26 touchdown passes, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
Pursuing history: Last spring, a nationally televised Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons seemed destined for huge implications. But in the Detroit Lions' lost season, there are now only two issues of note: receiver Calvin Johnson's pursuit of the NFL record for receiving yards in a season, and where the Lions will pick in the 2013 draft. As we've noted, Johnson needs 182 yards to break Jerry Rice's record of 1,812 yards and 329 to eclipse Charley Hennigan's record for average receiving yards per game in a season. As of this moment, the Lions stand at No. 5 in draft positioning but are within striking distance of a top-three pick. The Falcons have won four of their past five games and could clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory. As for Johnson's chances, the Falcons' pass defense ranks No. 17 in the NFL and is allowing 229.5 yards per game. It also has 18 interceptions, the league's fourth-best total.
(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)