LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears safety Mike Brown will miss the rest of the season due to a calf injury, leaving the defense without one of its emotional leaders heading into Sunday's game at Houston that could decide whether they make the playoffs.
It's the fourth trip in five years to injured reserve for Brown, who left the game against Green Bay on Monday night.
"Very disappointing for our football team and for Mike, too," coach Lovie Smith said. "Injuries are a part of it, and Mike's been in this situation before. He made it through this time about as long as he had in awhile."
Losing him is a big blow to the Bears (9-6), who need to beat or tie the Texans to have a shot at the NFC North title or a wild-card spot.
If they beat Houston, they would need Minnesota to lose to or tie the New York Giants to win the division, since the Vikings (9-6) hold the tiebreaker. And to get the wild card, they would need losses or ties by Dallas and Tampa Bay.
If the Bears tie Houston, they could still win the division if Minnesota loses, or capture the wild card if Dallas and Tampa Bay go down.
A ninth-year pro, the oft-injured Brown started 15 games this season and had 101 tackles, two interceptions, two tackles for losses and one sack before his latest season-ending injury.
He ruptured the anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee in last year's opener, missed the final 10 games in 2006 with a foot injury and suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury early in the 2004 season. Even when he made the Pro Bowl in 2005, Brown missed the final four regular-season games with a calf injury before returning for the playoffs.
"Losing Mike Brown for the rest of the season is big," Smith said.
But it's not unusual for the Bears.
He has not played in all 16 games since 2003 and with an expiring contract, his future is in doubt. For now, Smith said any conversations about that are "definitely premature."
"Right now, he's not going to play this week. That's about all I can talk about," Smith said, when asked if he would like to re-sign Brown.
Although Smith would not say who would replace Brown in the rotation, his absence could result in a bigger role for rookie Craig Steltz. An All-American at LSU, the Bears envisioned him as a possible starter when they drafted him in the fourth round.
Instead, they held him out of the first five games, and his contributions since then have been limited.
"Craig's a good player," Smith said. "He's played well on special teams, and when we've given him an opportunity to play a regular down, he's come through."
Steltz did get run over by Green Bay's Ryan Grant as he turned a short pass into a 17-yard touchdown reception late in the first half on Monday night, but he also had a 44-yard interception return against Detroit on Nov. 2. He also had a blocked punt against Minnesota in October that Garrett Wolfe returned for a touchdown.
"We've seen him in this situation before," Smith said. "That interception was big. We get a chance to work with him everyday. He's sharp, he knows the system, he's a good player."
If he gets to start, Steltz figures to be a little nervous at first.
"Just that first play," he said. "When the whistle blows and you have to run out there on the field ... it kind of settles things down."
With Brown out, the Bears brought back safety Cameron Worrell, who spent his first four seasons with them before signing with Miami in 2007. Worrell signed with the New York Jets before this season and was placed on injured reserve on Aug. 30 before reaching an injury settlement three days later.
"I've been through the system," he said. "I know what I'm doing. I picked it up fairly quickly when I came back. I'm just here to add some depth and do whatever they ask me to do."