By all accounts, the Bears will play a home game, a rivalry game and an important game today when they host the Minnesota Vikings.
Just don’t describe it as a must-win game.
“We have three losses,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith, citing his team’s 7-3 record. “ ‘Must?’ There’s nothing about ‘must’ when you have three losses.”
A loss today will not send the Bears careening into last place or cause panic in the streets (well, at least most streets). They remain in good position for a playoff berth regardless of the outcome against the Vikings (6-4), who also are vying for a spot in the postseason.
But momentum matters in the NFL, and the Bears could use a win to stop a recent two-game skid that likely has caused a spike in muttering across the region. A loss today could slide the Bears to third place in the NFC North and evoke memories of last season’s free fall.
Yet a big difference – a 6-foot-3, 220-pound difference, to be more specific – separates the Bears’ late swoon of 2011 from their midseason stumble of 2012. Jay Cutler is not out for the season, and he could return as soon as today from a concussion he sustained Nov. 11.
According to reports by CBS Sports and the Chicago Sun-Times, Cutler received final clearance from an independent neurologist Saturday in order to return to the field. The Bears did not confirm the reports and continued to list Cutler as questionable on their official injury report, which probably served as a ploy to keep the Vikings guessing.
The real question might not be whether Cutler starts the game, but whether he finishes it. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen nearly broke the NFL’s single-season record with 22 sacks last season, including 3 ½ sacks in the season finale against the Bears, and he will line up across from an embattled offensive line once again today.
Bears left tackle J’Marcus Webb is coming off of one of the worst games of his career. He deserved much of the blame as the offensive line allowed San Francisco 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith to rack up 5 ½ sacks against fill-in quarterback Jason Campbell in a 32-7 rout.
Meanwhile, right tackle Gabe Carimi has lost his starting job to journeyman Jonathan Scott after another subpar performance. Scott possesses terrific size (6-6, 318 pounds) but a spotty track record after unsuccessful stints in Detroit, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
In another switch, eight-year veteran Chris Spencer is expected to return to the starting lineup at left guard. Spencer would replace Chilo Rachal, who walked away from the team this week and was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list.
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice said the line had potential but needed production.
“What we’re not seeing is that consistency in performance,” Tice said. “It’s too much like the teeth of a saw. It’s up and down, up and down.”
With Scott and Spencer in the fold, look for the Bears to double-team Allen frequently and rely on chip blocks to knock him off of his feet. The Bears also could use tight ends and running backs as extra blockers to protect Cutler, but that could limit his receiving targets.
“That puts the quarterback and the guys that have to win in a bind,” Tice said. “But you pick your spots. You can’t help on both sides all the time. You can’t help on both sides and the inside. You’ve got to pick your poison. Who has the best chance to win the most battles?”
Although the Bears have won five consecutive games against the Vikings, today’s contest figures to be a battle. The Vikings are coming off of a bye while the Bears are playing on six days’ rest after a long road trip to San Francisco.
“It’s a game we want to win in the worst way,” Smith said.
Just don’t call it a must-win game.