(AP) — Coach Lovie Smith realizes the Chicago Bears no longer control their fate in the NFC North. Their playoff hopes still are in their hands, though.
That’s something Smith emphasized Monday on the heels of an ugly loss at Minnesota that knocked the Bears (8-5) out of first place in the division. They’ve dropped four of five and are free falling for the second straight year with Green Bay coming to Soldier Field this weekend.
If the Packers (9-4) win, they clinch the division and a wild card is no sure thing for Chicago. The Bears were sixth in the NFC after Sunday’s loss, with Washington, Dallas and Minnesota a game behind them.
“We need a little bit of help as far as the division is concerned,” Smith said. “But we do control our playoff hopes. That’s what we have to lay everything we do right now on, to just play better football.”
That’s something the Bears haven’t done since they racked up 51 points in a win at Tennessee on Nov. 4. They were 7-1 after that game, but the schedule took a tougher turn with back-to-back losses against Houston and San Francisco that started this slide.
It lightens up after this week with games against Arizona and Detroit to close the season, although both are on the road. The Bears could get into the playoffs with fewer than 11 wins, but it might come down to tiebreakers.
“The pressure we’re feeling right now is on our performances,” Smith said. “Improving, it’s on us. We talked about someone else controlling the division, but what happens to us, it doesn’t’ really matter about the teams ahead of us or the teams behind us right now. It’s just what we do. We’re not looking at that at all. … We have the Packers coming in and that’s enough right there for all of our thoughts to just go on them.”
The recent skid has only fueled the notion that the early run had as much to do with who the Bears were playing as it did with how good they are.
It’s also sparked memories of last year’s collapse and renewed speculation about Smith’s future. He was spared at the end of last season while then-general manager Jerry Angelo got the ax, after the Bears went from 7-3 to finishing at 8-8.
New GM Phil Emery had a mandate to keep the coach for this season, but beyond that?
“I think every day I’ve been here, each day I think all of us come to work we’re going to do the best job we possibly can,” said Smith, who’s signed through 2013. “All of our futures are tied. It’s all based on wins and losses, really, and I’m OK with that.”
The Bears have lost all the momentum they had in the early going, just as they did after Cutler broke his right thumb last season.
He was unable to finish the game against Houston because of a concussion and missed the next game at San Francisco. Against Minnesota, Cutler had to leave in the fourth quarter because of a sore neck.
Cutler took a hit to the head by Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen that drew a penalty, but he said afterward his neck was bothering him all afternoon and worsened as the game went on. Cutler finished that drive before Jason Campbell took over, but he doesn’t expect to miss any more time.
He said Monday during his weekly appearance on the “Waddle & Silvy Show” on Chicago’s WMVP-AM 1000 that “unless something drastic happens, absolutely” he will be ready to play against the Packers.
Kicker Robbie Gould also strained his left calf during warmups. He did handle extra points and an onside kick but ceded kickoff duties to punter Adam Podlesh. The Bears did not attempt any field goals, so it’s not clear if Gould or Podlesh would have handled them. Smith did not rule out bringing in kickers for tryouts this week in case Gould isn’t ready.
The Bears could point to a long list of injuries in recent weeks, with Brian Urlacher (hamstring) possibly out for the remainder of the season and cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) sidelined against Minnesota. But that only partially explains the poor execution on both sides of the ball, the lack of big plays on defense.
They were supposed to be built to weather them, anyway. And at the moment, the Packers are rolling despite a run of injuries that would have derailed most teams.
“Right now we just have to win out,” receiver Brandon Marshall said after the loss at Minnesota. “It doesn’t matter. Forget the Xs and Os, forget the first 11, 12 games of the season. All of that doesn’t matter at this point. We have the guys in this locker room that can get it done and we have to get it done.”