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updated: 11/30/2010 7:42 PM

Bears in good shape, but still work to be done

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  • Wide receiver Earl Bennett and the Bears have much to celebrate these days, and still much to play for in the final five games.

      Wide receiver Earl Bennett and the Bears have much to celebrate these days, and still much to play for in the final five games.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Heading into the bye, after back-to-back home losses to a pair of mediocre NFC teams had dropped the Bears to 4-3, who would have thought five weeks later we'd be examining their playoff possibilities?

Certainly not many who witnessed the 23-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and the 17-14 loss to the Washington Redskins.

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But a four-game winning streak has the Bears (8-3) in the thick of the playoff race, and actually controlling their own destiny, since only the Atlanta Falcons (9-2) have a better record.

However, there are two major hurdles the Bears still must navigate before they can start spending that playoff money.

No. 1, their schedule down the stretch, following Sunday's game against the Lions in Detroit, is a killer. Among the contenders, only the New Orleans Saints face as tough a finish. Both teams' final four opponents have a combined record of 29-15.

The Philadelphia Eagles' final four opponents have a combined record of just 17-27, but if they are tied with the Bears for a wild-card spot, the Bears get the nod based on Sunday's victory. Head-to-head results are the first tiebreaker.

No. 2, there are five other teams, besides the Falcons, that are within a game of the Bears, and three of them have a better conference record, which is the next tiebreaker.

At least two of the seven teams that are 7-4 or better will not make the postseason. The sixth spot goes to whoever emerges as the winner of the weak NFC West, where no one has a winning record.

The Bears guarantee themselves a playoff berth if they finish 10-6, if 1 of their last 2 victories is over the Packers, and if Green Bay loses one other game. That would give the Bears a sweep of the Packers and the NFC North title.

There are a number of ways the Bears can finish 10-6 and still miss the playoffs, but that seems unlikely in the upset-happy NFC.

But two of the top seven teams at present will be disappointed. I think the Bears get in, and here's what could happen with the rest of the contenders.

The Falcons are a lock. Their final four opponents, which include the woeful Carolina Panthers twice, have a combined record of 15-29.

Only a total collapse can keep Atlanta from finishing at least 12-4, which should be good enough for home field throughout the NFC playoffs. The Falcons are 19-1 at home with Matt Ryan at quarterback.

The Saints have the same record as the Bears, but they're lucky to have only 3 losses. Among their more unimpressive victories are a 3-point win over the San Francisco 49ers and a 2-point win against the Panthers. They also suffered double-digit losses to the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals.

They have won their last four games, but three of them were against teams with losing records. The Saints appear to be the most likely of the top teams to stumble down the stretch.

The New York Giants at one time appeared to be the class of the NFC, but they have fallen on hard times. They barely squeaked by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday after losing their previous two games by 13 and 10 points, respectively.

Turnovers have haunted them recently, and their top two wide receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith, have been hurt.

I think the Eagles will bounce back after their loss here Sunday, and getting cornerback Asante Samuel back will help immensely. They play the Cowboys (3-8) twice and are clearly the better team, but Dallas would love to play spoiler against them.

The Tampa Bay Bucs might need to upset the Falcons at home Sunday or knock off the Saints in New Orleans in the season finale to make the postseason.

I don't see it. They are vastly improved, but with young quarterback Josh Freeman throwing to rookie wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams and a defense that has struggled to stop the run, the Bucs are a year away.

The Packers are on the bubble. They can't run the ball, and that has to be a factor with three home games and one at New England, expected to be played in less-than-ideal conditions. Their special teams also are suspect at best.

Bottom line: The Falcons, Bears, Eagles, Saints and Packers get in; the Bucs and Giants do not.

rlegere@dailyherald.com

Atlanta Falcons (9-2) (6-1)

@Bucs 7-4

@Panthers 1-10

@Seahawks 5-6

SAINTS 8-3

PANTHERS 1-10

Chicago Bears (8-3) (6-3)

@Lions 2-9

PATRIOTS 9-2

@Vikings 4-7

JETS 9-2

@Packers 7-4

New Orleans Saints(8-3) (7-2)

@Bengals 2-9

RAMS 5-6

@Ravens 8-3

@Falcons 9-2

BUCS 7-4

Green Bay Packers (7-4) (5-3)

49ERS 4-7

@Lions 2-9

@Patriots 9-2

GIANTS 7-4

BEARS 8-3

New York Giants (7-4) (5-2)

REDSKINS 5-6

@Vikings 4-7

EAGLES 7-4

@Packers 7-4

@Redskins 5-6

Phil. Eagles (7-4) (5-3)

TEXANS 5-6

@Cowboys 3-8

@Giants 7-4

VIKINGS 4-7

COWBOYS 3-8

Tampa Bay Bucs (7-4) (5-2)

FALCONS 9-2

@Redskins 5-6

LIONS 2-9

SEAHAWKS 5-6

@Saints 8-3

Home games in ALL CAPS

Second number in parentheses is conference record.

•Follow Bob LeGere's Bears reports via Twitter@BobLeGere. Check out his blog, Bear Essentials, at dailyherald.com.

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