Picking up the Pieces

After losing Jay Cutler and Lance Briggs, in addition to a host of other injuries to key players, do the Chicago Bears still have a reasonable shot at making the playoffs?

Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman yesterday tried to put a positive spin on the news that his starting quarterback, Jay Cutler, will miss at least four weeks with a partially torn groin and his eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker, Lance Briggs, will miss six weeks with a fractured shoulder.

"The positive is that they're not out for the season. They're not done," Trestman said. "They're going to be back and this team has an obligation with the next-man-up philosophy of coming together. I'm encouraged by the prognosis that they'll be back and this bye couldn't come at a better time."

Trestman is right, to an extent. Had Cutler's groin tear been any worse, the injury would have knocked him out for the year. And with a bye this week, each player gets a full two weeks of rest and recovery before the team plays another game. In the best-case scenario, Cutler misses two games and is back by Week 11 when the team hosts the Baltimore Ravens. Yet that appears unlikely, as four weeks is just the starting point in his recovery time.

"This is a minimum of four weeks," said Trestman. "And then he'll be evaluated week to week."

That's not encouraging and likely means Cutler will be out until at least Week 13. For a 4-3 team that's right in the middle of the playoff hunt, this news couldn't come at a worse time.

Yet it can be argued that Briggs is the bigger loss. Chicago's defense was already a mess due to season-ending injuries to Nate Collins, Henry Melton and D.J. Williams, as well as a severely hobbled Charles Tillman. The team is 27th in total defense and is allowing 29.4 points per game, which is unheard of in Chicago, and now the unit has lost its best player for six weeks.

To give you an idea of what the future holds, look back to this week's game against the Redskins. With Briggs out in the fourth quarter, Washington scored touchdowns on three straight drives, including the game-winner with less than a minute to play. During that 21-point run, Chicago was nothing but a collective turnstile on defense.

And there's no reason to believe things can be fixed defensively. If you include Tillman, who hasn't finished a game in more than a month, the Bears are now down five starters on defense, which includes three Pro Bowlers. Very few teams can overcome such injuries and coordinator Mel Tucker has given us no reason to think he can find an answer. Julius Peppers is a shell of his former self, the team may be starting two rookie linebackers next week, Corey Wootton is playing out of position, Shea McClellin is a paper weight against the run and the safeties are on vacation.

It's a dire situation folks. Hang on for a bumpy ride.

Offensively, things aren't as grim. Losing Cutler is a big blow but Josh McCown has shown during his time in Chicago that the offense isn't going to crumble like it did under Caleb Hanie in 2011. Additionally, Trestman has proved to be a competent offensive coordinator, one who can get the best out of his quarterbacks. So there's good reason to believe McCown can be at least serviceable over the next month-plus.

"Jay is a heck of a player. He was playing at a really high level," McCown said yesterday. "I don't know, especially in this league where the quarterback drives the ship, I don't know if you're ever ready to handle losing your starting quarterback. But I think the structure is in place and the emphasis has been put on individuals to do their job and do their part. If we continue to get that, and we felt like we got that yesterday, it allows the quarterback to step in there, whether it's Jay or myself, to function and play, because guys are going to be coached to be where they are supposed to be and do what they're supposed to do."

Beyond Cutler, the offense is entirely healthy. So all those weapons Cutler had at his disposal now become McCown's. He still has one of the best all-around running backs in the league behind him and an offensive line that has done a very good job in pass protection this year, as well as a Pro Bowl receiver out wide and an emerging pass catcher on the other side. And don't forget Martellus Bennett down the seams. If McCown can find a way to get the ball to his playmakers – like he did against the Redskins, a game in which he nearly pulled off a fourth-quarter comeback on the road – the offense won't crumble.

"It's going to look different between Jay and I," said McCown. "Our skill sets are different. Every guy in America wishes he could throw the ball like Jay Cutler. He has big-play capabilities because of his arm and the things that he does, and just as a leader too. So the bar was set high by Jay. I'm thankful to get the opportunity to be here. You never want it under these circumstances but to be able to step in for him, I respect the heck out of him and it's an honor to play in his place. Hopefully I can keep us going and keep us in a good position so that when he does come back, we're in the hunt and making a run."

Cutler and Briggs will be back on the field eventually this year but can McCown and the rest of the team weather the next six weeks and keep the team's playoff hopes alive? On the surface, it's easy to write off the Bears at this point, but a closer look at the upcoming schedule provides hope.

First, we can chalk up a loss to the Green Bay Packers after the bye. The odds of the Bears winning that game are about as good as the U.S. Government actually getting something done in my lifetime. So that puts the Bears at 4-4.

The team then comes home to face the Detroit Lions. That could end up being the seminal game for Chicago this season. If the Bears win that shootout, they'll even the series with Detroit, which could be a big factor down the line when playoff tiebreakers come into play. A loss to the Lions would be tough to overcome though, as that would make two straight defeats to NFC North teams, dropping the Bears to 4-5.

Yet even then, not all would be lost, as the back end of Chicago's schedule is relatively light. After the Lions, the Bears face three teams with losing records – Baltimore Ravens (3-4), St. Louis Rams (3-4), Minnesota Vikings (1-5). Even with the injuries, the Bears will have a realistic shot at going 3-0 in that stretch, as those teams are all in bad shape.

The Week 14 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys is one to circle on the schedule but that game is at home. Early December Chicago weather never bodes well for Tony Romo and company, who are used to Texas temperatures and indoor football. Also, the Dallas game would signal six weeks from the injuries to Cutler and Briggs, meaning the leaders on both sides of the ball could be back on the field for that game.

The Bears then get the Cleveland Browns (3-4) and the Philadelphia Eagles (3-4), both winnable games, before hosting the Packers in the season finale.

Things look really bad right now and it's tough to see the silver lining amidst such devastating injuries, but it's not the end of the world. If the Bears can take care of business against weaker opponents going forward, they'll be able to keep the ship afloat until Cutler and Briggs can return. At that point, anything can happen.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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