After back-to-back home losses to a pair of mediocre NFC teams, the Seahawks and Redskins, dropped the Bears to 4-3, who would've thought five weeks later we'd be examining the playoff possibilities of the surprise division leader?
Not many people who saw the 23-20 loss to the Seahawks, followed a week later by the 17-14 defeat at the hands of the Redskins.
But a four-game winning streak has the 8-3 Bears in the thick of the playoff race and actually controlling their own destiny, since only the 9-2 Falcons have a better record.
However, there are two major hurdles the Bears still must navigate before they can start spending that playoff money.
No. 1, their schedule down the stretch, following Sunday's game against the Lions in Detroit, is a killer. Among the contenders, only the Saints face as tough a finish. Both teams' final four opponents have a combined record of 29-15.
The Eagles' final four opponents have a combined record of just 17-27, but, if they are tied with the Bears for wild-card spot, the Bears get the nod based on Sunday's victory since head-to-head results are the first tie-breaker.
No. 2, there are five other teams besides the Falcons that are within a game of the Bears, and three of them have a better conference record, which is the next tie-breaker after head-to-head results.
"I feel like we're where we want to be," defensive end Israel Idonije said. "We're in great position right now. We're positioned where we want to be. We've just got to keep getting better every week, and that's what we're going to do. It's one week at a time. We have Detroit coming, and they're the team that we've got to beat. That's our focus. We'll look at who's the best and all those other things later."
The Bears guarantee themselves a playoff berth if they finish 10-6, if one of their last two victories is over the Packers and Green Bay loses one other game. That would give the Bears a sweep of the Packers and the NFC North title.
There are a number of ways the Bears can finish 10-6 and still miss the playoffs, but that seems unlikely in the upset-happy NFC.
More and more players are mentioning the Super Bowl, which coach Lovie Smith does not discourage, but he also stresses focusing on the task at hand.
"Do we talk about home-field [advantage] for the playoffs?" Smith asked. "We talk about winning every game each week. We talk about winning our division. We have the same goals each year. Those things take care of themselves. We realize the landscape right now. This late in the season, you need to pay attention to that, but not a lot. Those things take care of themselves if you continue to win."
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