Preview: Bears have fallen far in last year

Last year, the Chicago Bears were fighting for a playoff spot in the season finale. This year, they have long since been eliminated from the playoffs with a plethora of roster decisions ahead.

In the NFL, a year can be an eternity. The Vikings went from being a 3-13 team that landed the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft to being a playoff team the following year. The 2014 Chicago Bears have seen just the opposite happen to them.

Last year, despite a rash of injuries to veteran players, including then-franchise quarterback Jay Cutler, the Bears got to Week 17 with the opportunity to play an all-or-nothing game for the NFC North title against Green Bay. The winner would win the division and play at home. The loser would be out of the playoffs completely. Chicago lost that game and it has been all downhill since.

After notching a couple of roads win to start the season, the Bears sat at 2-1 and there was talk of knocking the Packers off the mountaintop of the division. Since then, Chicago has gone 3-9 and have been out of playoff contention for weeks, having lost four in a row, with their only wins in that span coming against teams with a combined record of 14-30 (Atlanta, Minnesota and Tampa Bay).

There is plenty of blame to be shared for the Bears’ record of 5-10. The offense has sputtered under Cutler and Chicago has the 30th-ranked defense – ahead of only New Orleans and Atlanta. But one of the big reasons why the Bears hit the tank this season was because of injuries and aging players at key positions.

They have seen more than their fair share of injuries. Their injured reserve list includes LB Lance Briggs, CB Peanut Tillman, DE Lamarr Houston, WR Brandon Marshall, LB D.J. Williams, DE Willie Young, C Brian de la Puente and TE Zach Miller – all of whom have five or more years of experience, and four of them with nine or more. If you were looking for a way to cut out the heart of team, taking away 10 vested veterans is a great way to do it.

Adding to the problem has been the spotty play of Cutler. He has thrown 18 interceptions and lost six fumbles – far too many turnovers for a quarterback thought to be elite. Things got so bad that Cutler was benched last week because head coach Marc Trestman went on record as saying career backup Jimmy Clausen gave the team a better chance to win. That speaks volumes as to the feeling on Cutler, who signed a $96 million contract extension earlier this year and now Chicago is looking for an exit strategy. With Clausen out with a concussion, the team is turning back to Cutler. Another shaky performance and it may well be his last with the Bears.

Chicago has talent on the offensive side of the ball and no player exemplifies that more than running back Matt Forte. No running back in the NFL stays on the field more than Forte (at about 90 percent) and it’s not even close. A true three-down back, not only has Forte rushed 249 times for 987 yards and six touchdowns, he leads the team in receptions with 94 – good for 785 yards and four more TDs. He is the backbone of the offense and a player the Vikings will have to constantly keep an eye on because he can do a lot of damage in a lot of different ways.

The Bears have other strong offensive threats that, on paper, should make them much better than they are, including WR Alshon Jeffery, TE Martellus Bennett and offensive linemen Kyle Long, Roberto Garza and Jerome Bushrod. There is talent there, but with a defense allowing 29 points a game, teams don’t win many with that formula.

The defense for the Bears has been hit hard early in games, being outscored 258-131 in the first half of games, including 173-75 in the second quarter. Former Viking Jared Allen and Houston were the two big offseason outside free-agent signings the Bears made to improve the pass rush, but Allen has produced just 5.5 sacks and Houston had just one – he tore his ACL in the ridiculous post-sack celebration and was lost for the year.

The defense has been gutted by injuries at all three levels, getting hit especially hard at linebacker. The secondary has also been suspect, as youngster Kyle Fuller is learning on the job alongside Tim Jennings, and safeties Chris Conte and Ryan Mundy are pedestrian at best.

A year ago at this time, Bears fans were excited about the prospect of playing a home game in January and potentially making a run for the Super Bowl. Instead, they watched from the sidelines and what had once seemed so promising has devolved into a team that is likely to end up with a top-10 draft pick next year.

As the Vikings look to send a message that they will be a team to be reckoned with in 2015, the Bears have all the look of a team ready to install dynamite charges under the current roster and implode the whole thing. There is a lot at stake for the Bears, because this will be the last game for a lot of them as members of the Chicago franchise, but if their season ends on a sour note there could be as many as 20 or so players currently on the roster that won’t be there next year, along with questions as to whether Trestman and his staff will return.

Get your popcorn (and your pink slips) ready.

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