Assuming the Bears don't make the playoffs, and it's almost a lock that they won't, they have a much bigger problem on the horizon than their absence in the postseason.
First things first. Here's how the Bears can be eliminated from the playoff picture before Monday night's 7:30 kickoff at Soldier Field in their 176th regular-season meeting with the Packers:
It would take victories by the Vikings, who are 3.5-point favorites at home over the Falcons on Sunday; the Cowboys, who are 4-point favorites at home Saturday night against the Ravens; the Bucs, who are 4-point favorites at home against the Chargers; and the Eagles, who are 3.5-point favorites on the road against the Redskins.
In that scenario, the Vikings would clinch the NFC North at 10-5, since the worst they could do is finish with the same 10-6 record as the Bears, who would lose in a tiebreaker. The Cowboys and Bucs would also move to 10-5, meaning they could do no worse than finish with the same record as the Bears, who would also lose to Dallas and Tampa Bay in tiebreakers.
But the situation that must be addressed as soon as this season ends is the state of the defense, which, despite all the money that's been lavished on it, is getting worse instead of better.
The Bears defense is currently 17th in total yards allowed, tied for 15th in points allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed and 25th in sack percentage – not the numbers of an up-and-coming group.
In the same categories last season, the Bears finished 28th, 16th, 27th and sixth.
Back in 2006, when the Bears went to Super Bowl XLI, they were No. 5 in total yards allowed, No. 3 in points allowed, No. 11 in passing yards allowed, and No. 16 in sacks – with almost all of the same players.
But they're not getting better. They're just getting older. Most of the starters on defense have already gotten much wealthier, but they obviously haven't been more productive and in many cases their performance is sliding.
According to team statistics, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had 185 tackles in 2006, 158 in 2007 and is on pace for 114 this year. He had five interceptions and five sacks last season. He's got two picks and no sacks this season.
Tommie Harris had 48 tackles in '06, 43 in '07 and is on pace for 30 this season. If he has chronic knee problems at 25, his future doesn't look very bright. Oh, by the way, Anthony Adams has played in just seven games this season and started only twice, but he has the same number of tackles (26) as Harris, who has started 11 games and played in 12.
Does anyone think cornerbacks Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman are getting better? Vasher's performance and his health have deteriorated so badly that no one would be surprised if he were cut before next season. Vasher had eight interceptions in his Pro Bowl year of 2005, when he was known as "The Interceptor." The next season he had three picks, and in the past two seasons, he's had a total of two as he missed 12 games in '07 with a groin injury and eight games this season with hand injuries. He ended both seasons on injured reserve.
What was a youthful, promising and improving defense two years ago has turned into an aging, underachieving and declining group in need of a facelift.
And that's supposed to be the strength of this team.
NOTES & QUOTES
Manning leads the NFL with a 29.5-yard kickoff-return average, although he didn't become the Bears' primary kick returner until five games ago.
"We're winning, that's the most important thing," Manning said. "When I go out there, my goal is to give the offense good field position. Other than that, touchdowns and everything after that are just bonuses. Hopefully I can get more bonuses." …
Sometimes it seems the rivalry with the Packers is more important to the fans than the players, but defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said he hates the Packers, too.
"The fans won't like you if you don't, so I hate the Packers," Ogunleye said. "I want all the Bears fans to know I hate the Packers. It's a big rivalry, and after losing the way we did up there (37-3), it makes it even more of a heated battle. I can't wait. I really, really want to try to settle the score and at least go 1-1 against the Packers." …
As one of the bigger success stories to come out of the Arena Football League, wide receiver Rashied Davis was disappointed to hear the league will suspend operations for the coming season after 22 years in business.
"That kind of sucks," said Davis, who was the league's Offensive Player of the Year in 2005, just weeks before joining the Bears. "I'm hoping the best for those guys. Hopefully, it comes back next year. It bums me out. I've got a whole lot of friends that play arena, so I'm hoping they resolve whatever situation they have and they're able to come back and play next year."
The league hopes to return to action in 2010.
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