If the 49ers want to remain favorites to win the NFC, this is a must-win.
This season the 49ers have found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Week after week, they are heavy favorites to win. After beating the Packers in Week 1, the 49ers and their fans thought they proved they are the real deal, worthy of all the preseason hype.
Since that win, the 49ers have been inconsistent despite posting a solid 6-2-1 record.
They have had the best of times (45-3 victory over Buffalo, 24-3 win over NFC West rival Arizona), the worst of times (26-3 loss against NY Giants) and the strangest of times in last week's tie with the lackluster St. Louis Rams at home.
This is a pivotal moment in the 49ers season. If they win, they prove without a doubt they can beat a playoff team and make it back to the NFC Championship a second consecutive year. It they lose, many will start to doubt the 49ers can compete with the best-of-the-best.
The matchup with the Bears is not an unfavorable one. With Cutler's return uncertain, the 49ers formidable rushing defense will be able to place more attention on star running back Matt Forte. After the 49ers allowed 159 rushing yards against the Rams in Week 10, the defense is hungry to redeem themselves.
No doubt this will be a low-scoring contest. With Alex Smith also questionable to play Monday, the 49ers will have to depend even more heavily on the running game than usual. They face a tough Bears rushing defense, which is ranked fourth best in the league thus far, allowing an average of 92.3 total yards rushing per game.
Frank Gore could be a deciding factor in the game. He has produced big numbers all season, and has been a pillar of consistency. Gore has averaged five yards a carry in games the 49ers have lost.
The bottom line: Contending football teams deliver in high-stakes contests. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh has a track record of success in big games, and this is too key a moment in their season for the 49ers to fold.
The 49ers will make the playoffs even if they lose to the Bears on Monday. But this game has greater implications than just securing a playoff berth.
The 49ers had all the hype and all the confidence in the world going into the 2012 season. Now, they need to prove they deserve the praise, and that they are truly a powerhouse football team.