MINNEAPOLIS -- A step into the Chicago Bears' locker room Sunday afternoon was like opening a door into a blizzard. The people inside spoke in hushed tones, steeling themselves from elements that had been pounding them for hours. They looked wind-worn and resigned to additional accumulation.
Sunday's 21-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings was the Bears' fourth in five games, a slump that has dropped them from NFC North leaders into a fight for wild-card playoff position. (The Bears are now clinging to the sixth seed in the NFC playoff race after the Seattle Seahawks' 58-0 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.) They are now 0-6 in their past two Decembers, and watching them Sunday made you wonder if they are nearing the end of an era.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher was walking through the locker room in street clothes, sidelined by a hamstring injury that ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported could end his season and perhaps career in Chicago. Quarterback Jay Cutler was nursing an injured neck that was so stiff he could not turn it during a postgame news conference, instead swiveling his upper body or just moving his eyes to face questioners. Even coach Lovie Smith, who always looks ready for battle, was notable for the gray stubble sprouting from his chin.
"The window of opportunity for us is a lot smaller," Smith said, "but we still control what happens to us."
Smith was referring to this season's playoffs, and yes, the Bears have a good chance of advancing if they win their final three regular-season games. They might well get in with a 2-1 finish. That schedule includes one home game, next Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, and then road games at Arizona and the Detroit Lions to finish the season.
Do you see three wins in those games? Maybe. Do you see two? It's quite possible. But here's a more specific question: Do you see either scenario from the team the Bears trotted onto the Metrodome carpet Sunday? I'm not sure about that.
Cutler didn't mince words afterwards, saying: "We have just a handful of games left, and we have to win them all." But what if they don't? What would a second consecutive December collapse mean for this franchise?
Smith has a 79-62 record in nine seasons with the Bears. He had them in the NFC Championship Game two years ago and seemed destined for a deep playoff run last season before Cutler's season-ending thumb injury. This year, Smith had the Bears at 7-1 before they hit this slump.
Instincts tell you that Smith's job isn't riding on the next three games. But the Bears haven't been predictable since George McCaskey ascended to the chairman's role two years ago. After Week 14 last year, I wouldn't have guessed general manager Jerry Angelo would be fired the day after the season. That event means that Smith's boss, new general manager Phil Emery, isn't the man who hired him.
Even if Smith keeps his job, you would think the Bears' 2012 finish will jump-start the rebuilding of a defense that has been slowed by age and injuries in the second half of the season. Sunday, the entire team seemed literally to be falling apart in front of our eyes.
Place-kicker Robbie Gould strained a calf muscle in pregame warmups. Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson ripped off a 51-yard run on the first play of the first game Urlacher has missed in three seasons. Receiver Alshon Jeffery slipped on a cut, resulting in an interception that set up a touchdown that gave the Vikings a 14-0 lead less than halfway through the first quarter.
Receiver Devin Hester dropped a certain touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, and teammate Brandon Marshall allowed a potential fourth-down conversion to skip off his hands. Even Cutler interrupted one of his better NFL seasons with some sloppy throws, including one in the third quarter that sailed over Marshall and was returned 56 yards by Vikings safety Harrison Smith for a touchdown. That score proved to be the deciding points in the game.
How the Bears came out flat in a December game with playoff implications is a story with no acceptable explanation. This performance should be a wake-up call to anyone who believes in the Bears' status quo.
Cutler was one of the few players who appeared to be scrapping from the start, most notably on an 11-yard run on third-and-10 to extend the Bears' second possession. But Cutler paid a price for his hard-driving play. He said his neck was "stiffening up more and more" as the game progressed, and Smith pulled him late in the fourth quarter after he absorbed one final head shot from Vikings defensive lineman Everson Griffen.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Marshall said "we just have to win out" three times in a span of four questions. And if they don't? Well, anything -- and everything -- seems possible.