The injury bug couldn't even wait until the opening kickoff to bite the Chicago Bears on Sunday for the third consecutive week. In hindsight, this should have been an ominous sign. Kicker Robbie Gould strained his left calf in warmups, the first in a chain of grim events to begin the Bears' Week 14 matchup with the Vikings. It added up to an appalling start Chicago could not overcome.
Adrian Peterson would stiff-arm Chris Conte to the ground and run for 51 yards on the opening play from scrimmage. He'd find his way to the end zone soon after. The Bears would run four plays on offense before Minnesota stuck again, intercepting Jay Cutler when rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery fell out of his break. Vikings DB Josh Robinson thought he had put the Vikings up 14-0 with a pick-six, but a video replay proved he stepped out at the five yard line. No worries: all that did was give Peterson the opportunity to gash the Bears for his second touchdown of the quarter. The Chicago defense was only on the field long enough to see emerging star Henry Melton go down with a shoulder injury.
What the hell was happening? Did the Bears not realize this was a must-win after dropping a home game to the Seahawks the previous week? Did they not realize a loss in Minnesota would put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy? Did they not realize the violent effects collapsing after a 7-1 start could have for this roster and this coaching staff?
The Bears have rarely seemed ill-prepared during the Lovie Smith era, but a devastating start they could not overcome on Sunday makes it fair to question their sense of urgency. The Bears have lost four of their last five games and are in real danger of missing the postseason with a game against the Packers looming. Even if they finish 10-6 by defeating the Cardinals and Lions, Chicago would lose a tiebreaker to the Redskins if Washington can run the table. How did we get here?
These are the facts: the Bears got fat off bad teams to begin to the season. As soon as the competition started to improve, Chicago was hit with a tidal wave of injuries. The defense stopped scoring touchdowns. The offense, the unit that was supposed to carry this team, has been stuck in neutral all season. The Bears are 31st in passing yards. Matt Forte hasn't had a huge impact after breaking out last season. And Jay Cutler, hero to the fanbase and slighted warrior to Internet tastemakers, is still prone to making one or two decisions a game that kill the team. The Bears are officially in shambles, and there might not be enough time left to right the ship.
We'll say this: the Bears could have been run off the field after such a terrible opening frame, but they didn't roll over. The defense held Adrian Peterson to only 50 yards after the first quarter, and didn't let him get back in the end zone. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder finished with just 91 yards passing. The Bears out-gained the Vikings 438-248 on the day and did well protecting Cutler when he dropped back to pass. It just wasn't enough.
Chicago's comeback suffered two critical blows. The first was a pick-six -- this one counted -- in the third quarter when Cutler overthrew Brandon Marshall and Vikings safety Harrison Smith found himself in the right place at the right time. That score would put Minnesota up 21-7; that score would officially place a combination lock on the Bears' playoff hopes. The second was much scarier. With Cutler trying to mount a comeback in the fourth, Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen labeled the Bears quarterback, sending a shock down the spine of Bears fans everywhere.
This was no joke. The concussion Cutler suffered on November 11 was at least the sixth of his career, and Griffen's hit looked bad enough to be the seventh. Cutler would stay in the game until his receivers ultimately let him down: first when Devin Hester dropped an inexcusable pass on third down that likely would have put him in the end zone, then when Brandon Marshall couldn't hang on to a tough throw in triple coverage on the next play.
Cutler would exit and was reportedly being evaluated for a neck injury. The Bears better hope that's all it is. Another concussion to Cutler would raise seriously questions about numerous issues, most notably Chicago's testing protocol. If it's "just" a neck injury, the Bears have dodged a major bullet in more ways than one. It did serve as another harrowing reminder for just how scary this sport can be.
With their season crumbling and the franchise at a breaking point, Green Bay comes to town. The Bears have lost five of their last six vs. the Packers and desperately need a victory at Soldier Field. It's possible the Bears can still make the postseason at 10-6, but they'll need some help from either the Giants, Redskins or Cowboys. What looked like one of the better Bears teams in recent history, at least since their mid '80s run of dominance, is dangerously close to crashing and burning. It would have major repercussions. They'll be plenty of time to talk about whether Lovie Smith deserves to keep his job and how Phil Emery should attack his offseason rebuilding effort. For now, the Bears still have a chance. It's fading, but it exists.
Beat Green Bay. That's all it comes down to.