Tuesday, December 14, 2010
It's no cinch, but Bears can clinch
By Michael C. Wright ESPNChicago.com
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Clinching won't be a cinch.
Yes, the Chicago Bears can wrap up the NFC North title by defeating the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, coupled with a loss by the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in New England. But let's consider the Bears' recent history in games played at the Metrodome.
The Bears have lost three in a row there since 2002, and seven of eight contests to the Vikings at their home stadium. So it's a positive for the Bears if repairs at the Metrodome -- whose Teflon roof collapsed early Sunday under the weight of heavy snowfall -- can't be completed in time for the game to be held there.
The Vikings are hoping Brett Favre returns to action against the Bears.
The backup plan, as of right now, is the University of Minnesota's TCF Stadium.
Venue issues aside, the Bears (9-4) face a crucial juncture in what's been a strong 2010 campaign so far, despite coming off an embarrassing 36-7 defeat Sunday to the New England Patriots.
"Every game you play can help you. It has to be a learning experience, whether it's good or bad," Bears coach Lovie Smith said Monday. "[The loss to New England] wasn't part of our master plan. But just watching the video, we know more things about our football team than we did yesterday."
The key is whether Chicago can erase Sunday's loss, correct mistakes and refocus on its mission to capture the division title. By taking care of business against the Vikings, the Bears put the pressure back on Green Bay, which could face the Patriots on the road without starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who suffered his second concussion of the season in the team's 7-3 loss Sunday to the Detroit Lions.
The timing for facing Minnesota on the road couldn't be better for the Bears, considering the Vikings are officially out of the postseason picture after their 21-3 loss Monday to the New York Giants. At the same time, the Bears might be facing a perfect-storm type of scenario.
Despite their 5-8 record, the Vikings still possess plenty of talent, including 10 Pro Bowlers from last year's team that nearly advanced to the Super Bowl. But at this point, the talented Vikings are playing for pride and jobs, which could make them a dangerous opponent.
"We're still first in our division; that's all that matters right now," said former Viking running back Chester Taylor, now a backup running back for the Bears. "Us beating Minnesota will put us ahead even more. So we'll just focus on Minnesota."
Coming off a horrid outing in which they produced just 164 yards, while allowing two 100-yard rushers, the Vikings might actually be poised for a rebound. In an emotional locker room in the aftermath of Monday's loss, several players reportedly apologized to fans, discussed plans to make amends, in addition to the team's need to continue playing hard despite being out of the playoff picture.
Preparing for its last home outing of the year, Minnesota is also likely to exert its best effort against the Bears to increase the chances of ownership removing the interim tag from the title of coach Leslie Frazier, who is well-liked among the team.
Quarterback Brett Favre plays into the situation, too. Favre's streak of 297 consecutive starts ended Monday against the Giants. Frazier said Favre underwent an ultrasound Tuesday on his right shoulder, and the results were negative, giving the team hope about possibly having the quarterback available for the matchup with the Bears.
Knowing the end of his illustrious career is at hand, Favre -- if healthy -- will be looking to produce a signature performance against the Bears.
"We're going to monitor that," Frazier said. "Hopefully things will get better. It looks like there is a chance we're going to get [Favre] back at some point. We're not really thinking injured reserve."
Backup QB Tavaris Jackson could be out against the Bears because of a turf toe injury, Frazier said. Third-stringer Joe Webb is the club's most healthy quarterback, the coach said, adding that Jackson isn't expected to practice Thursday.
Minnesota's most dynamic offensive threat, receiver Percy Harvin should be back at practice along with defensive end Ray Edwards. Both have missed the past two games: Harvin with migraine headaches, Edwards with a sprained ankle.
Just as easily as Minnesota could bounce back with a strong performance on Monday night, the Bears have shown a tendency to rebound from humiliating defeats similar to Sunday's loss to the Patriots. Destroyed by the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 20 last season, the Bears came back to beat Minnesota and Detroit in back-to-back outings.
In 2006, the Bears lost 26-7 to Green Bay in the regular-season finale, before advancing to the Super Bowl.
"First thing's first," Bears tight end Greg Olsen said. "The easiest way to get into the playoffs is to win your division. You don't have to count on wild cards and tiebreakers and all that. Then, as you know [from] the past, anything can happen. We have a huge division game, national TV, Monday night; a chance to kind of redeem ourselves. We have everything in front of us. We just have to take care of business."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago and ESPN 1000.