If Matt Forte is out, playoffs may be too

CHICAGO -- Was it really just two weeks ago that the Chicago Bears were on their way to their fifth victory in a row and a 7-3 record with a playoff berth looking extremely promising?

If the team was floored then by the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler with a broken thumb, then they were downright sucker-punched Sunday by the sight of their star running back, Matt Forte, laying on the Soldier Field turf, clutching his right knee.

Forte, who walked off the field under his own power, told ESPNChicago.com it was "just a sprain," raising hopes that it is not a season-ending injury. But when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson hit Forte squarely in the knee to stop him for no gain after a handoff from Caleb Hanie in the first quarter, thoughts of beating a struggling Chiefs team, much less making the postseason, suddenly seemed as elusive as a third-down conversion.

Indeed, the Bears showed, with a wretched 10-3 defeat to Kansas City in one of the more unsightly games you're ever going to see, that functioning at a winnable level without both Forte and Cutler is going to be very difficult.

"When we lose our quarterback, we're like 'OK, we'll be fine,' " Bears receiver Roy Williams said. "Then we lose the star of the team, the star of the offense, and I mean, that's tough."

Tough also that Williams bobbled what would have been a game-tying touchdown with a little more than four and a half minutes left in regulation that ended up as a Chiefs interception. Unfortunately for the Bears, it was just one on a long list of mishaps Sunday.

Throw in Hanie's two overthrows to Earl Bennett in key situations; the Bears' failure to convert on a third-and-1 from the 4-yard line, then having a touchdown nullified by penalty on the next play in the second; and a Hail Mary by Kansas City's own woeful QB that the Bears batted into the arms of the Chiefs receiver in the end zone before the half; and that tells part of the story.

Seven sacks by Kansas City's 23rd-ranked defense in the league, 0-for-11 on third-down conversions by the Bears, an unlikely miss by Robbie Gould on a 41-yard field goal attempt after two sacks pushed the Bears back from a first-and-goal from the 7; and a 23.8 quarterback rating for Hanie make it difficult to pin Sunday's ineptitude on any one play or player.

But no one in the stadium or in the Bears' locker room could be under any illusions Sunday that without Forte at full strength, the remainder of the season -- at Denver next week, followed by Seattle at home, then at Green Bay and at Minnesota -- will be anything but treacherous.

"It's not a running back," Brian Urlacher said, cutting off a questioner inquiring about Forte's loss. "It's Matt Forte."

Forte had not gained more than 64 yards in the previous three games and had only 12 yards on five attempts when he was hurt. But the four-year vet came into the game leading the league in yards from scrimmage (at 1,475) and it was his contribution in the short passing game that was probably missed most Sunday.

"He's our screen guy, he leads the team in receptions, he's just a versatile back, a top three back in the league," Williams said. "And when he goes down, I mean it's tough to fill those shoes."

Bears tight end Matt Spaeth bore responsibility for Forte's injury.

"I felt horrible," he said. "Nobody feels worse about Matt Forte's injury than I do right now. I came around and the linebacker [Johnson] was there. I tried to hook him to get Matt outside, which we were supposed to do and he just kind of jumped inside and dove at Matt's legs. I guess you can say it's part of the game, they make plays too. But I feel pretty bad about it."

In Forte's absence, running back Marion Barber filled in with 44 yards rushing on 14 carries while Kahlil Bell had 34 yards on four carries, including one 26-yard scamper around right end on a late-third quarter drive that ended with Gould's missed kick.

But neither caught a pass (they were targeted for just two combined). And while Barber had been getting a little more action in recent weeks, giving the Bears the proverbial one-two punch, he does not possess the breakaway speed of a featured back.

"Guys are going to have to step up, including myself," said tight end Kellen Davis, who had two catches for 40 yards. "Matt is a huge part of our offense and a great player [and] obviously he's going to have to be out at least the next week … so we're going to have to step up and make the plays for him."

Frankly, even with Forte the 7-5 Bears were not looking much like a playoff team and are now locked in a wild card battle with Atlanta (7-5), the Giants (6-6), Dallas (7-5) and Detroit (7-5). One more loss and it could be over.

Bell said he's hopeful Forte will return before the season is over.

"At halftime I just walked up to him and told him to keep his head up and stay strong, and he just shook his head and said, 'Yeah,' " Bell said. "I can't speculate but I think he'll be back. He has a great work ethic, so he'll be back."

Forte's injury, no matter the severity, also brought into sharp focus the risk at which he is playing under in the final year of his rookie contract after turning down an extension offer from the Bears of approximately $13 to $14 million in hopes of a longer-term deal.

That, combined with the very immediate repercussions of his absence, made Sunday a demoralizing one for all concerned. But then, the Bears are adept at looking at the bright side.

The lead item in their postgame notes highlighted the fact that the Bears' defense held the Chiefs to 10 points and had two sacks, and another noted that Davis had a career-high 40 yards receiving.

"We're still in good shape as far as I'm concerned," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We're in great shape if we take care of business. I'm talking about if we make those necessary changes, adjustments and improvements we have to make, we'll be in great shape. [We're] one win away from feeling a lot better."

One win. And one running back.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.