Four Downs: Will Urlacher be back?

A hamstring is the latest injury for Brian Urlacher, who hopes to be back by the end of the regular season. AP Photo/Kevin Terrell

The Chicago Bears begin life without Brian Urlacher on Sunday. Will it be a preview of next year and beyond?

Expected to be sidelined at least three weeks by a hamstring injury, Urlacher's contract is up after the season. Will the Bears bring back the veteran Urlacher, who was already dealing with a knee injury?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Brian Urlacher won't be back with the Bears next season.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. It's too early to tell. As it stands now, there is no long-term replacement for Urlacher on the Bears' roster, that's why I refuse to rule out the possibly of the Bears bringing Urlacher back on a one-year deal. What if he returns for the postseason and lights it up in the playoffs? What if the Bears struggle badly in the next few games without him? What if he accepts a one-year deal and wants to retire a Bear? Would any of those scenarios change how the Bears view the situation? Probably so, which is why I can't get myself to write off Urlacher in 2013, yet.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. As difficult as it was to type that, things certainly seem to be trending toward the Hall of Fame linebacker not making a return to the team. The Bears need to make some type of push to bring back Urlacher, but it's unlikely it would consider paying anything remotely close to the $7.5 million he is currently receiving in base salary. So while it's safe to say the team plans to make an effort at signing the face of the franchise to a new deal, the question becomes how much is Urlacher willing to take? Urlacher has expressed excitement about the prospect of free agency, while also stressing he'd like to remain with the Bears. But Urlacher also wants a legitimate opportunity to win a Super Bowl. So if he thinks another team provides a better shot at that than the Bears, Urlacher could opt to go that route in free agency. Also, if the Bears submit an offer in free agency deemed insulting by Urlacher, he could leave based simply on principle because there is sure to be another team willing to pay just a little more.

Scott Powers: Fiction. A healthy and overly-athletic Urlacher has plenty of value as a free agent. The current Urlacher, who will be 35 years old by next season, has a knee which will never be the same and is now hampered by a hamstring injury, isn't going to draw a whole lot of attention or money on the free agent market. The Bears obviously still found value in his leadership and ability this season, and unless they decide to pursue another linebacker in the offseason, it's likely the Bears would want him back. I could easily see him returning to the Bears next season.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Phil Emery may be the general manager, but the McCaskeys still own the team and Lovie Smith still coaches it. Unless Urlacher's injury is worse than a strain, I think tradition and loyalty come through and Urlacher gets another deal for a year or two. He should get another shot to go out healthy. Plus, he can still play if he can run. Regardless, Emery needs to add a young explosive linebacker. Jerry Angelo probably should have drafted one years ago.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: Other than Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, Urlacher is the player the Bears can least afford to lose this season.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Julius Peppers is also in the team photo of players the Bears can least afford to lose but at least there is quality depth at defensive end with Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin. Nick Roach is a solid player, but to ask him to entirely replace Urlacher is impossible. Urlacher is the captain of the defense, the one responsible for making the calls and adjustments on the field, with 13 years of NFL experience. Opponents can't fool Urlacher. He's seen it all. Oh, and he's still a pretty good player, despite suffering all season from knee problems. This one hurts.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Urlacher gives the Bears a veteran presence, the ability to diagnose offenses quickly and relay calls to the rest of the defense. But physically, Urlacher admittedly isn't the same player he's been the majority of his career. Urlacher's replacement, Nick Roach, should be able to fill in without the Bears losing much at the position. What made Urlacher irreplaceable in the past was his ability to cover the middle third of the field in Tampa 2, but the linebacker no longer possesses that type of range, which might be the reason the Bears now utilize more single-high safety looks on the back end.

Scott Powers: Fiction. The Bears are weakened by the loss of Urlacher, but I wouldn't want to see what the secondary looked like if they didn't have Charles Tillman and/or Tim Jennings, who has been wearing a sling this week. The Bears' defense has thrived this season because of Tillman and Jennings. Both have been among the best cornerbacks in the NFL. They contained Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, and they've combined for 10 interceptions, three touchdowns and eight forced fumbles.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I'd worry more about losing Lance Briggs, but it's close. Every other position group has depth, except linebacker. That's the reality when you spend so much on two star linebackers in a defense that doesn't prize blitzing at that position. As weakside linebacker, Briggs is in position to make more plays, as his pair of touchdown returns showed. Urlacher's greatest value is his wealth of knowledge and his leadership skills at calling the defense. But Briggs is slightly more valuable.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears are in serious trouble if they lose to the Vikings.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. If the Bears lose in the Metrodome they might not make the playoffs. Think about it. How can you pick the Bears to beat Green Bay at home on Dec. 16? The Packers have won six of the past seven in the series, and unlike the Bears, can score touchdowns on a consistent basis. A loss at Minnesota and home against Green Bay would put the Bears at 8-6 with two road games (Arizona, Detroit) to close out the season. Do you really want to have to win out away from home in order to qualify for the postseason? Of course not, which is why Sunday's game against the Vikings is so crucial. The Bears have to win. If they don't, it's shaping up to be a terrible offseason.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. They'd fall to 8-5 and likely move further behind Green Bay, which would basically destroy their shots of winning the division while seriously diminishing their margin for error over the last three games. But the Bears wouldn't necessarily be in serious trouble if they lose this game. A loss against the Vikings would put the Bears in a situation where they would need to win two of the last three games of the season against Green Bay, Arizona and Detroit, with two of those contests on the road. Even if the Bears fell to the Packers on Dec. 16 after losing to the Vikings, the matchups at Arizona and Detroit seem very winnable given that the Cardinals have lost eight in a row, while the Lions have dropped four. So victories over the last two outings would likely get the Bears into the playoffs as a wild card.

Scott Powers: Fact. The Bears are likely to make the playoffs even if they lose to the Vikings -- and fall to the Packers the following week -- but the season's goal isn't just to reach the playoffs. It's to win the Super Bowl, and that doesn't seem so realistic any longer, especially if you have the Bears stumbling into the playoffs with a losing record in their final eight games. They need to start resembling the team everyone saw early in the season if they're going to have any chance at the end of the season.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. It won't be ideal, that's for sure, but while it might feel like the season is imploding, especially with Green Bay coming next week, the Bears could still get in the playoffs by winning their last two games at Arizona and Detroit with minimal help. That's just on paper, though. A loss could plant some serious doubt in the mind of players and coaches, as memories of last season's fade come back. This team is under some pressure given the expectations coming into the season and its 7-1 start, and I think they still make the playoffs.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears should try to find a way to pay back Jared Allen for his season-ending hit on Lance Louis.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Believe me, I felt Allen's hit on Louis was dirty and the specifically targeted Louis' head on the block. I also believe Allen got off easy with a $21,000 fine. But this is a must-win, so the Bears simply cannot afford to get a 15-yard penalty for a cheap shot on Allen, or have one of their plays ejected. If the game meant nothing, maybe the Bears would give Allen a little payback. But this game means everything, and therefore the Bears must display restraint.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's crunch time in the NFL with postseasons on the line. So it would be foolish for a player to jeopardize their availability with a potential suspension (it could happen) for retaliating against Allen. Besides that, it's more important for the Bears at this point to concentrate solely on winning the game. At 6-6, the Vikings aren't yet out of contention, and surely they harbor hopes of winning out and getting into the playoffs. So the best revenge the Bears can serve up is a win at Minnesota, which would pretty much eliminate the Vikings from a playoff berth. Allen's hit on Louis didn't fit the textbook definition of "dirty" anyway. Unnecessary, yes. Dirty, no. I'm sure the Bears are smart enough to the difference.

Scott Powers: Fiction. What Allen did was wrong, no question. But the answer isn't to counter by attempting to end his season and physically harm him in some way. I get people believe you're supposed to protect your teammates -- there are unwritten rules in football and that's the way it used to be taken care of -- but I hope someone on the Bears has the sense to point out the idiocy of all that. You're dealing with someone's livelihood and health. Even if Allen made his own decision when it came to that, it doesn't make it right to retaliate. You can hit him hard and make him feel it, but do it legally. Ultimately, the best way to get back at him would be contain him on Sunday. Make one of the best pass rushers in the game feel useless.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The meathead in me says yes. Nothing serious, just a little shove or some extracurricular "action." But it's a bad idea for more than just sportsmanship. This team needs focus from every player to reverse its current direction. Consciously avoiding a payback shot on Allen is one way to show how disciplined this veteran group is. Also, not sure you want to make Allen angry. Better to have him on edge all game wondering if he's going to get nailed.