Don't look back, keep eyes on prize

LAKE FOREST -- Grudgingly, I may have to agree with Chicago Bears players choosing to downplay Sunday's whitewash by the New England Patriots.

Looking ahead in this case is not only prudent and in their best mental-health interests, but also wise, considering what lies ahead of them.
They must beat the Vikings.

"We can win the NFC North," said Bears center Olin Kreutz. "We know that's still in our hands and we're still the No. 2 seed in the NFC. So we still have everything in front of us."

If the Green Bay Packers lose to the Patriots on Sunday night, a victory next Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings would clinch the division for the Bears, thus allowing them to focus on the playoffs. Once they're in, the best they can hope for is a Super Bowl berth against the Patriots, or some team that actually beat the Patriots and thus will be even more capable of smushing the Bears.

But that's then.

For now, everything hinges on the Vikings' game.

"We have our future in our hands here, going forward," said tight end Greg Olsen. "We have a huge division game, national TV, Monday night, a chance to kind of redeem ourselves from yesterday's poor performance."

Though we promised not to dwell on Sunday's ugliness, there is plenty for which to redeem themselves. The fact that the Bears' top-five defense went to sleep in the first half for the second week in a row does not instill a great deal of confidence.

The Bears fumbled four times Sunday and lost two, including the 10th for quarterback Jay Cutler in the past 12 games. They allowed two Patriots receivers -- Deion Branch and Wes Welker -- to gain 266 yards on 16 catches. And like Detroit's two-play, 91-yard, 19-second touchdown drive the previous week, which gashed the Bears as the Lions took the lead just before halftime, the Patriots exposed the Bears with a 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired in the first half.

These are not the letdowns of championship -- even division championship -- teams. Not when the defense has been the backbone of the team this season.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears could drop their next two games against Minnesota on the road (somewhere) on Monday Night, followed by the New York Jets at home. And with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers recovering from a concussion in Sunday's game, it is just as possible that the Packers could lose their next two against New England and the New York Giants, thus setting up a division-clinching game in Green Bay on Jan. 2.

This would not be a good thing for the Bears.

"We've got to gear it back up," Cutler said. "We've got to get to playing good football again."

Under Lovie Smith, the Bears have never made the playoffs with three home losses. Sunday's defeat was No. 3. But then again, the Bears have made it to the playoffs in only two of Smith's six seasons, so that's not a lot of precedent.

More importantly, the Bears must beat a Vikings' team that they used a season-high four takeaways and a terrific all-around performance by Devin Hester to dispatch, 27-13, four weeks ago. The game marked Hester's first kickoff returns of the season, with a long of 68 yards, and he also delivered a 42-yard punt return and a 19-yard touchdown on a pass from Cutler.

The Vikes lost 31-3 at Green Bay the week after the Bears' setback but bounced back with two straight wins. But stability is not an option this week, as they face the Giants in a Monday night contest relocated to Detroit after part of the Metrodome's roof collapsed. And, oh yeah, now they'll play without Brett Favre, whose NFL record of consecutive starts ended at 297 after his injured throwing shoulder landed him on the inactive list.

But regardless of the Vikings', Favre's or the Metrodome's condition next week, the Bears must win.

"The team goal we set for the season is still there," Smith said Monday.

Few would disagree that the Bears, with their dearth of injuries and good bounces, have been lucky this season, lucky in many ways to be 9-4. And Sunday's embarrassment can go away in a hurry.

"For as bad as things looked yesterday, we're fortunate that we're still in a position to achieve everything that we wanted," Olsen said.

And it begins with the division.

"Beginning of the season, that's the first goal," Olsen said. "It's not the ultimate goal; obviously everyone's goal is to win the Super Bowl. But first things first. The easiest way to get into the playoffs is to win your division. You don't have to count on wild cards and tiebreakers and all that. Just win your division and you're in, then, as you know in the past, anything can happen. Once you make the playoffs, it's a clean slate."

If they beat Minnesota, all is well.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.