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Bears face "elimination" game against Arizona

After so many months, “March Madness” has arrived.

Sort of.

OK, not really.

But it’s tournament season for the Bears, who have adopted college basketball’s win-or-else template for the remainder of the season.

How long the season continues depends on how long the Bears (8-6) survive and advance. Their first-round game is today against the Arizona Cardinals (5-9).

“Obviously, you know when it’s ‘March Madness’ time, every game counts,” Bears cornerback Zack Bowman said after a recent practice at Halas Hall. “There is no lose and, ‘We’ll come back next week and put it all together and have another shot.’ No.

“Every game is important. Every game is critical. Every game is a must-win in order to make it to the national championship.”

The Bears could have avoided such drama until the playoffs, but a late-season slump has forced them to adjust. They have lost five of the past six games and probably will need back-to-back wins against Arizona and the Detroit Lions to make the playoffs.

Other factors also will play a role in the Bears’ postseason forecast.

If the Minnesota Vikings lose to the Houston Texans today, the Bears’ playoff hopes will remain alive regardless of their outcome against the Cardinals. If the Vikings beat the Texans and the Bears lose to the Cardinals, the Bears will be eliminated.

The next two games for the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys also could influence the Bears’ playoff chances.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler brushed aside all of the what-if playoff scenarios this week in favor of a simple approach.

“We can’t worry about it,” Cutler said. “We’ve just got to get to nine wins. We can’t go anywhere unless we get to nine, and if we get to nine, we can talk about 10.

“But right now, eight isn’t good enough. And nine might not be good enough, either.”

More often than not, the Bears’ offense hasn’t been good enough. Cutler has thrown 14 interceptions and been sacked 35 times, and he will have to be careful against an Arizona defense that leads the NFL in interceptions and tied for seventh in sacks.

On defense, however, the Bears should have the advantage. The Cardinals’ offense is last in the NFL with 264.2 yards per game, and rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley has thrown for zero touchdowns and six interceptions entering his fourth career start.

Both teams possess dangerous kick returners: Devin Hester for the Bears and Patrick Peterson for the Cardinals. Neither has scored on special-teams this season after combining for seven return touchdowns in 2011 (Peterson 4, Hester 3).

Bears coach Lovie Smith has remained optimistic with all three phases of his team throughout a bumpy season. But he acknowledged the pressure that lay ahead, starting with today’s game at University of Phoenix Stadium.

In mid-March, six wins separate an NCAA tournament team from a championship. As the Bears see it, six wins separate them from their goal of winning a Super Bowl.

“We’ve got to win out,” Smith said. “We realize that. We know the road that we have to go to achieve our goal, and that’s on the road – a long road trip, you could say.

“Of course, none of that matters, though, without getting a win this week.”

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