With two weeks to go in the regular season, the first place Chicago Bears (8-6) will face the Philadelphia Eagles in a prime-time contest at Lincoln Financial Field this weekend.
How important is this game? Just ask defensive lineman Corey Wootton.
"It's a must-win," Wootton said after practice. "Of course every game is a must-win but time is running short for the season. We are currently in first place and it's a place we'd like to remain as the regular season ends."
"At this point, you don't want to waste much time worrying about what other teams in your division are doing," said Wootton. "That can be a distraction and nonproductive. Our job is to concentrate on what lies directly in front of us and let whatever happens to the other teams just occur. We have no control over that but as a team we can control our own destiny. That is our focus at the moment."
Chicago's defense has struggled of late and gave up 366 total yards to the Cleveland Browns last weekend, a fact that bothers Wootton.
"Not acceptable," he said. "It means we need to step up and get to work. Yes we won the game but as a defense our job is to give our offense a little wiggle room. That means giving them good field position and holding the opponent's yardage way down."
The Bears forced two takeaways against the Browns, which was a positive step forward. Overall though, the club has struggled to produce turnovers ever since Charles Tillman went down with a triceps injury in Week 10. In the four games between weeks 11-14, the Bears combined for just three total turnovers, which is a huge drop off for a team that prides itself on taking the ball away.
"Missing Peanut has been a blow for us," Wootton said. "There have been many injuries on our side of the ball recently, but his loss stings. Peanut has this instinct for getting the ball. It's amazing. I think we may have gotten a little complacent just counting on him to do that in every game for us."
The team was hoping Tillman might recover in time for the stretch run, or at least for the playoffs, but coach Marc Trestman announced this week that Tillman is done for the season.
"That sent us back to the drawing board for sure," Wootton said. "While the rest of us might not have that finely honed ball-hawk sense, we know what needs to be done. We have one guy going in for the tackle while the other goes after the ball. It should be effective."
Tillman's replacement, Zack Bowman, did his best impersonation of Peanut against the Browns, intercepting two passes, one of which he returned 43 yards for a touchdown.
"Huge plays like that are the kind of thing I'm talking about," Wootton said. "Guys are stepping in and stepping up. For us the bottom line is turnovers and takeaways. That needs to happen on a regular basis."
Trestman said Lance Briggs, who has been sideline for two months, is likely to return this week, which would be a huge boost for the run defense, which dropped from 12th in the league down to 32nd in his absence.
"Lance was practicing today in a limited capacity," said Wootton. "We won't get the word on his availability for a while yet. He's been invaluable helping us from the sidelines, encouraging us and correcting our mistakes, but having him back on the field would be important. Philadelphia is known for a fast, tough offense. We need the very best players available out there for us."
With injuries depleting the defense, Wootton has been forced to play every position along the defensive line this season. Although at this point in the campaign, with so many guys on shelf, that's just par for the course.
"It's been a learning experience for sure," Wootton said. "We've understood from the beginning that every member of this team has to be ready to come in at any time and perform at 110 percent. The fact that we are currently leading the division indicates that these efforts have paid off."
Things get much tougher Sunday against the Eagles' offense, which is ranked 2nd overall (414.0 yards per game) and 1st in rushing (152.9).
"Going to Philadelphia, it's essential that we play our gaps correctly," said Wootton. "Their offensive tempo is one of the fastest in the league. They bring a lot of unbalanced looks, some different things from what we've been seeing recently. We've been spending a lot of time this week on repetition as far as what our responsibilities are. Who is watching the quarterback? How's our timing? Are we getting the assignments down? They have very quick receivers and running backs. There is no room for error on our part."
The game was originally scheduled for noon but due to the playoff implications – the Eagles (8-6) have a one-game lead over the Dallas Cowboys (7-7) in the NFC East – but was flexed to 7:30 CT by the NFL.
"Actually, I think a lot of guys here like it. I know I do," Wootton said. "That way you get a little time for a nap. Additional rest can be important when you're on the road. That downtime balances out any fatigue you might feel from playing late."
Does playing in prime time bring added pressure?
"I really don't find that to be the case. This is a big game for us, a must-win, no matter when it's played."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.