- Kevin Seifert, NFL Nation
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You know how we are around here. We don't like to live in the moment. We want to look ahead, to anticipate what's next, to project and speculate and prognosticate. When at all possible, we look for deep meaning and revealing symbolism in everyday events.
Week 15 provides us an opportunity to do just that. So I'll introduce this sentiment for your consideration: Sunday's game at Soldier Field could put the competitive rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers on hiatus for several years.
A Packers victory would be their fifth consecutive win over the Bears, including the 2010 postseason. More importantly, it would clinch the Packers' second consecutive NFC North title. And while the Packers appear poised for continued success, the Bears could soon be jolted into a significant overhaul this winter.
A division championship would validate the Packers' re-tooling effort, one that has centered around getting younger on defense. A loss for the Bears could leave them needing help to get into the playoffs even if they win out and finish at 10-6. (ESPN.com's Playoff Machine will show you how they could lose a tiebreaker to the Washington Redskins at 10-6.)
Thus the Bears would be at risk of becoming the second team in the 23-season history of this playoff format to miss the postseason after a 7-1 start, a collapse that would pile a number of difficult decisions on the desk of general manager Phil Emery. Topping his list would be the status of coach Lovie Smith, but this season has also exposed the Bears' aging defense as well as their continued inability to find continuity on their offensive line.
Emery's course for the franchise will hinge in part on whether he re-signs quarterback Jay Cutler, whose contract will expire after the 2013 season. Cutler mused about various possibilities during his ESPN 1000 radio show Monday and acknowledged the franchise's path isn't clear.
"I don't know how they feel about me and where they see the franchise going," Cutler said. "You get a new GM in and we'll see how it goes. He's got a lot of tough decisions coming forward. ..."
It's hard to imagine the Bears parting ways with Cutler under any circumstances. But Brian Urlacher's physical fade in the past year illustrates why Emery might want to plan more aggressively for the eventual departure of linebacker Lance Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers. He will also need to re-evaluate the franchise's in-house strategy for building an offensive line. For three consecutive seasons, the Bears have fielded a patchwork group that has left Cutler battered. In 2011 and 2012 alone, 10 different linemen have made at least one start.
From a big-picture perspective, the biggest gap between the Bears and Packers is that Cutler has been forced into the role of the Bears' sole difference-maker while the Packers have reduced their reliance on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. One piece of surprising evidence: Rodgers has thrown only two touchdown passes in his past three games, the fewest over any three-game stretch of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Instead, the Packers are building a running game based on patience, if nothing else. They have averaged 135.8 rushing yards over their past five games, giving carries to five different running backs over that period in what has amounted to a mini tryout. And of the six defensive players the Packers selected at the top of the 2012 draft, four are part of the regular rotation and a fifth -- linebacker Nick Perry -- would be were it not for a season-ending wrist injury.
The Bears have a much shorter list of young building blocks at this point. Of the 56 players on their active roster or injured reserve, you could count maybe six as established and credible starters who will be under the age of 28 next season. That list includes defensive tackle Henry Melton, guard Lance Louis, receiver Earl Bennett, safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte, and receiver Alshon Jeffery.
These issues will exist whether or not the Bears win Sunday, and they won't dissipate even if they go on to win the Super Bowl. But a loss would be the Bears' fifth in six games, a year after they dropped five of their final six to scuttle a 7-3 start. That might be enough to spur the kind of sea change we haven't seen in Chicago in a decade, one that cedes divisional competitiveness for a stretch.
Just a thought. We'll be here all week.
5hEric D. Williams