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Sunday, November 25, 2012
The price you pay

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Now more than ever, we are constantly made aware that football is a savage game. But on the field, where the carnage is fast and reductive, the players get their laughs where they can.

Sometime after catching an 11-yard pass late in the third quarter, one play after Matt Forte left with an ankle injury, Brandon Marshall gave his quarterback Jay Cutler a personal fantasy football update.

"In the third quarter, I leaned over to Jay and I said, 'That catch puts me at 1,000 yards for six seasons in a row,'" Marshall said, pausing to laugh. "And he looked at me and said, 'You're disgusting.'"

Marshall, who unconvincingly blames his stats awareness on social media, also told Cutler he's closing in on Marty Booker's team record of 101 catches.

"He also called me disgusting on that one," said Marshall, who has 82 catches with five games to go.

Most Bears fans don't care if Marshall co-hosts "Fantasy Football Island" on ESPN 1000 Sunday mornings as long as he keeps compiling those stats. This is a David Terrell town when it comes to receivers. Marshall just might be the harbinger of something different.

The game-changing Marshall continued his assault on the Bears' meager receiving record book, catching 12 passes for a very hard-fought 92 yards in a 28-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. He scrapped for every yard, too -- a real Grabowski in a supermodel's body.

But the big number hanging around the Bears after Sunday's game wasn't Marshall's 1,000th catch, Adam Podlesh's two-point conversion run, the defense's three takeaways or even the team's eighth victory. No, it was a more sober number, a reminder of the game's transitive nature and the cost of the casual violence we take in every week.

Matt Forte
Bears running back Matt Forte injured his ankle on Sunday, one of five Bears to leave the game.

That number was five, for the number of Bears players knocked out of the game. It's too soon to know whether any of those injuries are serious, or whether anyone else was dinged up, but it's an alarming number nonetheless. After the game, most players offered the usual vague prayers and the things you say when your teammates go down and you still win. Aside from a few guys, such as Cutler, everyone is replaceable in theory.

"It's part of the game, but I always feel for my teammates when they get hurt," defensive tackle Henry Melton said. "It's terrible."

It could be terrible if any of these injuries is serious.

Cornerback Charles Tillman left the game in the first half with an ankle injury but never had to leave the field and was walking along the sideline. Both starting offensive guards, Lance Louis and Chris Spencer, got knocked out with knee sprains. Devin Hester suffered a concussion and Forte his ankle injury.

While Forte's ankle has given him trouble this season, the Bears still have Michael Bush as his backup. Any injury to Louis, the right guard, is the one to watch. Louis has easily been the best lineman of a weak group, and without protection, Cutler can't be effective. It's never a good time to lose two linemen, but the Bears go to the Metrodome in two weeks and then host Green Bay. Cutler might as well travel with a Bible and a priest.

The normal starting offensive line is bad enough. Actually, given its play, maybe some understudies could mix it up. No matter what, this unit can't lose anybody else if it wants to keep Cutler's head attached.

Gabe Carimi, who was benched as starting right tackle this week, replaced Louis after Vikings defensive end Jared Allen killed him on a block early in the third quarter. The only time Carimi previously played guard was in practice at the Senior Bowl, but he adjusted on the fly. The former first-round pick has been a disappointment in his first full season, and along with J'Marcus Webb, a major problem for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

"I got in there and didn't give up any big plays," Carimi said.

That was certainly a plus. The Bears are short at guard after releasing former first-round pick Chris Williams and putting erstwhile starter Chilo Rachal on the reserve/non-football injury list. Rachal briefly went AWOL after being demoted for Spencer.

Between the turmoil at line, Cutler's concussion two weeks ago in a loss to Houston and Monday's 32-7 meltdown in San Francisco, the Bears needed a win in the worst way.

No one expected much offense when Jason Campbell subbed for a concussed Cutler in San Francisco, but the defense was shredded and didn't force a turnover against the Niners' green quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. The game was alarming to some, just a blip to others. The Bears' defense has been among the best in the league all season, the one thing you can count on besides Lovie Smith's mouth moving and nothing interesting coming out.

"We destroyed the film," Melton said. "That wasn't us last week and we knew it. We worked on some small details and got back at it."

The Bears did their thing, causing turnovers, but gave up 100 yards to a running back for the third time in four games as Adrian Peterson got 108 on 18 carries. Still, given Peterson's comeback season, that wasn't bad. Even better was the Vikings only had three rushing first downs and lost two fumbles, one by Peterson and the other credited to quarterback Christian Ponder on a botched exchange.

"We were doing a lot of stunting," Melton said. "We just wanted to make Peterson go one way. It kind of hurts your [pass] rush, but we're still getting there."

Peterson had only 25 yards in the first half as the Bears had a 25-3 lead at the break. Facing a heavy dose of Cover 2, Ponder went 22-for-43 for 159 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Tim Jennings thought he had his league-leading ninth interception of the year, but the pick was overturned on review.

Every win is a cause for celebration, and aside from the injuries, you saw some improvements, and Cutler looked sharp. But Minnesota is a middling playoff contender, so any true sign of where this team is will come against Green Bay on Dec. 16.

You hate to look that far ahead in a weekly league, but given that the Bears look like a playoff team against mediocre and bad teams and are 0-3 against fellow contenders, it's fair, too.

The game looked like a blowout at the break, but there were moments of worry in the second half, from the injuries to an overturned Vikings defensive touchdown. But the Bears persevered.

One of the second-half highlights was something you surely don't see very often, Cutler stopping to tie the shoe of his left tackle Webb -- you know, the guy he's been seen yelling at.

"I don't know if that's Cutler-like, but it was pretty cool," Marshall said. "We were all cheering in the huddle."

"I loosened it and tied it," said Cutler, a new father. "I guess my fatherly instincts are kicking in a little bit."

A new Papa Bear? Marshall said he saw something different in Cutler's approach this week. Call it maturity, maybe, or just a sense of the moment.

"Honestly, Jay was fiery," Marshall said. "A sense of urgency, the most I've seen all year. He was ready to go."

So were the Bears.