- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- As Minnesota Vikings marauder Adrian Peterson ran roughshod over the Chicago Bears' defense in the first quarter, trampling their hopes and stiff-arming their Super Bowl dreams, prayerful Bears fans looked to the sky. Specifically, the roof.
Couldn't the Mall of America Field roof just rip a few seams to postpone this beating? A little snow day?
If that was your thought, who could blame you?
At the time, as the Vikings built up a quick two-touchdown lead that turned out to be unbeatable, it looked as though the Bears' season was collapsing under the weight of injuries, inefficiency and inevitable regression to the mean.
With a 21-14 loss to the Vikings, the Bears' fourth loss in five games, it's beginning to look a lot like ... last year.
No, no, no!
At 7-1, the Bears were the darlings of Chicago. A month later, they're an 8-5 playoff hopeful with a home game against Green Bay looming large next week and two road games to end the season.
Sure, the Bears can win out and go into the postseason on a high note. Jay Cutler could also win the Nobel Peace Prize for Interceptional Diplomacy.
"The Jay Cutler Show" will live forever in our hearts and minds, but it's not going into late January. And yes, it might be time to cancel the Super Bowl victory parade and replace it with a state funeral for the Lovie Smith era.
Don't celebrate all at once, Anti-Lovie-ites. I'm kidding about that last one, but only a little bit. General manager Phil Emery has a big decision to make if the Bears miss the playoffs. Can you fire a coach who goes 10-6 and misses the playoffs? Do you let him coach in the final year of his contract with no extension?
The Bears might deny it, but they are in the midst of their second straight December collapse. This team is beaten up mentally and physically. The first collapse cost general manager Jerry Angelo his job. Does the next one cost Smith his gig with one year remaining?
It's not decided yet. The Bears could even lose next week to Green Bay and still make the playoffs. But a 10-6 record won't guarantee a berth, not with Seattle and Washington (if Robert Griffin III can play) streaking. Play around with the ESPN.com Playoff Machine, and you'll see the Bears need some help if they don't run the table.
"It's a short season," Cutler said. "We have just a handful of games left, and we have to win them all."
Even as a hardened media member, I would love to see the Bears rally these last three games and start a Super Bowl run for the ages.
But I'm not counting on it. We heard this all last year during the Caleb Hanie Experience, and we know how that ended.
As Murphy's Law states, "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." I forget: Was Murphy a Halas or a McCaskey?
"I'm just thinking about us getting back on a winning streak next week," Smith said when he was asked whether he was worried about the team getting tight. "We're disappointed in how some of those games have gone -- all of the games really. We're disappointed in this game, but when you're disappointed like that, you have your rival coming up back at home, we have to rally. We'll feel bad, but then it's all on Green Bay."
Oh, that should make Bears fans feel better. Chicago is 1-7 against the Packers since Cutler came aboard.
This team simply hasn't performed under pressure. Its only win against a playoff-bound opponent was Indianapolis in Andrew Luck's first start. And now the Bears are going to beat Green Bay with their season on the line?
Green Bay is not invulnerable, but the Bears are 1-5 against the Packers the past three years. And the Bears' defense is wracked with injuries. And the Bears' offense still can't put together a complete game. And ...
Well, there aren't many reasons to make one think the Bears will finish the season on a 3-0 run.
Forget the momentum arguments; the injuries are what should worry you. Linebacker Brian Urlacher is likely out for the rest of the regular season with a hamstring strain. Cornerback Tim Jennings is out with a dislocated shoulder. A handful of Bears went down in this game, including rookie defensive end Shea McClellin (knee) and kicker Robbie Gould, who was limited to extra points and onside kicks after tweaking his leg warming up.
Even Papa Bear 2.0, Cutler, sat out the Bears' last series with a stiff neck, likely suffered after getting hit in the helmet by defensive end Everson Griffen. Cutler still met with reporters and proclaimed himself "day by day." Cutler threw for 260 yards and a score, but his two interceptions were so costly.
The first came on the Bears' first series, which followed Peterson's rousing start, a 51-yard run, a 16-yard run and 1-yard touchdown. On third-and-4, Cutler fired a pass at Alshon Jeffery, except Jeffery wasn't there. He slipped and fell. Josh Robinson picked it at the Bears' 49 and and returned it 44 yards. Peterson scored again to make it 14-0. Mall of America Field echoed with the sounds of the Bears' demise.
The next interception came in the third quarter, with the Bears trailing 14-7, as Cutler overthrew a slanting Brandon Marshall in the middle of the field. The pass hit safety Harrison Smith in the numbers, and he returned it 56 yards for a score.
"I thought he fought to the end," Smith said. "Of course we'd like to have a couple of throws back, but Jay's going to play like that always. We know what we're going to get from him."
Translated: The guy's going to throw some interceptions. What do you want me to do? Cutler isn't perfect, but he's The Guy.
Cutler has to lead this team, because it's not going to be the banged-up defense. The defense peaked during that scoring streak, but despite Peterson's team-record 104 yards in the first quarter, it actually performed pretty well, "holding" him to 154 for the game. Christian Ponder passed for 91 yards.
What a difference a month makes. This was supposed to be some kind of dream season with Marshall finally giving Cutler some help, and through eight games, it was living up to the hype.
Speaking of hype, Marshall has been fantastic, better than advertised. He had 10 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's loss, setting the Bears' single-season record with 101 catches. He's 59 yards short of the team's single-season yards record (1,400) and five touchdowns short of that record (13).
That's the good news. Everything else is the bad news.
Does it feel like last year? The few Bears I asked said no. They were on message.
"Nah, because we're still in a good position right now," Devin Hester said. "It's not over for us. We're not in the best position we want to be in, but we're still in the position where we still determine our destiny. We've still got two key games against Green Bay and Detroit. ... We're not going to look at this game as the game that ended our season because we still got two more key games that could put ourselves in position."
We said that last year too, Devin.
As painful as this game was, if you ask the Bears, which we did, they're thinking only about next week, not this pesky losing streak. You have to take those proclamations with a wheelbarrow of salt. The Bears were on message after the game, following leader Lovie's example.
Controlling the message is one of Smith's most positive traits. I hope he has it on his CV. Of course, all it takes is one sweep across the locker room to prove those statements hollow. No one believes that the Bears aren't rattled by this skid.
"We have to bounce back, and we have to bounce back fast," said cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who is new around here. "Our guys are down right now, but we've got to get over it fast. We can't let this thing keep lingering over us."
What "thing"? Lovie's veterans know well enough to deny that a losing streak exists anywhere but in outsiders' minds.
"No, you're not focused on the streak," defensive lineman Israel Idonije said. "It's one game at a time. You play the game, win or lose, and you put it behind it you, and get ready for the next one. Green Bay's coming up, and we have to play our best next week."
And there's the problem. Don't worry about what this team says but how it plays. This is not a team playing with reckless abandon. It's a tight team that knows it's blowing a chance for the playoffs.
Dressed in funereal black, Hester, the fading star, lamented a dropped would-be touchdown inside the red zone on third and 6 with four-and-a-half minutes to go. He blamed himself.
"Just one of those cases where it was so easy, I was that wide open," he said. "I just couldn't pull it in."
The 2012 Bears season, as described by Devin Hester.
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