Through the first nine weeks of the NFL season, the Chicago Bears looked like one of the top Super Bowl contenders in the league. After kicking off the season with a 41-21 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, they hit a bump in the road with a loss against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
After that Week 2 loss, the Bears went on to win six consecutive games, including two games in which they scored 41 and 51 points. Their defense was playing at an all-pro level, forcing turnovers and scoring touchdowns at will.
The Bears season began with an impressive 8-1 start, but since then, they have won only one of four games. With the playoffs just one month away, the Bears could be seeing their playoff chances slip away.
The following will highlight the main five reasons why Chicago could be waving goodbye to the postseason.
Chicago will be without their captain for perhaps the rest of the regular season
In the wake of Chicago's Week 13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Chicago Tribune reported that Brian Urlacher could miss the remainder of the regular season with a Grade 2 hamstring injury. This comes as a huge loss for the Bears, as they will be without their defensive leader and team captain for the last four weeks.
The Bears haven't done well in the past without Urlacher on the field, so it will be a test for the defense to be able to push through this last quarter of the season.
Chicago will not only miss Urlacher's production, but also his leadership in the huddle. Whether or not Urlacher will be on the sidelines during the team's remaining games, the Bears have without a doubt lost the most important piece of their defense.
Nick Roach will move from outside linebacker to fill in for Urlacher, while Geno Hayes appears to be the favorite to take over Roach's spot. The Bears also re-signed linebacker Dom DeCicco, who was signed by Chicago in 2011 as an undrafted free agent.
The loss of Urlacher makes the Bears' linebacking corps smaller in size, and it could lead to some communication issues as Hayes has not seen a lot of playing time this season.
After the Bears' Week 11 loss to the 49ers, offensive coordinator Mike Tice said there would be a change in the offensive line. Chilo Rachal, who had started eight straight games at left guard, was demoted from his starting position. A few days after, he left the team for personal reasons.
Gabe Carimi, normally the team's starting right tackle, moved to the left guard spot to fill in for Louis, while backup guard Edwin Williams filled in for Spencer.
The Bears' offensive line has had its ups and downs. In Week 2, they allowed seven sacks to the Packers. In Week 11, they allowed six sacks (5.5 to Aldon Smith).
An inconsistent line could lead to problems for Chicago as their upcoming games feature dangerous pass rushers in Jared Allen from the Vikings, Clay Matthews with the Packers, Daryl Washington with the Cardinals and Cliff Avril from the Lions.
Chicago has done a good job of protecting Jay Cutler in the past two games, but their one-dimensional offense could lead to some problems against these top pass rushers, which brings me to my next point.
Matt Forte must perform at a high level if he wants his team in the playoffs
Over the past four games, Matt Forte has 72 carries for just 210 yards, a 2.9 yard-per-carry average. He has also yet to record a rushing touchdown since Week 9.
Forte's involvement in the offense has to be greater, even if it's in the passing game. Over the same four-game stretch, he has only 10 catches for 35 yards and one touchdown. Forte has had a 50-plus-catch season every year since he came into the league in 2008; as of now, he is on pace to catch anywhere between 40-42.
The silver lining is that despite his recent struggles, he still has an average of over four yards per carry on the season, meaning he has had good games this year. If the Bears can focus part of their game plan on getting Forte in a rhythm, there may still be hope that the Bears' offense can stabilize and be more balanced.
Then there's the problem in the passing game:
Brandon Marshall leads the Bears with 91 catches for 1,182 yards. The second leading receiver in yardage is Earl Bennett with 23 catches for 250 yards. If there's one consistent aspect in this offense, it's that Brandon Marshall will get his fair share of targets.
As defenses continue to focus on him, Chicago has to start looking in other directions in the passing game. Taking the pressure off of Marshall could give him more one-on-one opportunities if defenses have to focus on other players.
To make things simple, Forte has to be better. The Bears have turned to a very pass-happy offense, an offense that is featuring only one player: Brandon Marshall. While he has had major success this season, teams are aware that when Jay Cutler drops back to pass, it's most likely going to Marshall.
With just four games left in the regular season, the Bears find themselves in a position where they control their own fate. Their 8-4 record has them in a tie for the division lead, but a Week 2 loss to Green Bay has given the Packers the tiebreak.
If Chicago wins two of their remaining four games, they're in the playoffs. The only problem with that is that they have a tough schedule ahead of them. They host the Packers on Week 15, a team they have lost five straight to, including playoffs.
They close the season out by visiting the Detroit Lions, a game that could be tough given Detroit's recent resurgence as one of the league's top offenses.
This makes their upcoming game against Minnesota a must-win, along with their Week 16 matchup against the Cardinals. Winning these two games would make any team on the hunt for a playoff spot win their last four games.
This theory doesn't guarantee them a playoff spot, however. If Washington or Tampa Bay were to run the table, they would take Chicago's spot based on a better win percentage in conference and/or divisional games.
Ideally, Chicago will win out and clinch a playoff spot by winning their division, but based on their tough remaining schedule and the possibility of an on-the-hunt team taking their spot, there is a chance that Chicago will miss out on the postseason.
A recent injury could force cornerback Tim Jennings to miss some time
Losing Brian Urlacher will prove to be tough for the Bears as they continue their hunt for a playoff spot, but he's not the only player dealing with an injury or that will be missing time.
Tim Jennings, the league's leader in interceptions, suffered a shoulder injury in the loss to Seattle, and while he has not been ruled out, his status for Week 14 remains in doubt. Kelvin Hayden is expected to fill in for Jennings should he miss any time.
The Bears' offense is also seeing their receivers go down. Earl Bennett suffered a concussion against the Seahawks and has been ruled out for Week 14's game against Minnesota. Devin Hester and Alshon Jeffery are recovering from injuries and are expected to return, but their roles have not been made clear.
There are also the lingering foot and ankle injuries that Charles Tillman, Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs are dealing with and have dealt with for most of the season. While it has not forced them to miss any games, it's something that cannot be shrugged off as they are the most important players in the defense.
They have played at a consistent level all season, but there is no doubt that a re-injury or causing further harm could prove to be costly for a defense that is already missing their leader.
With four remaining games, the Bears defense will be challenged with the injuries to Urlacher and Jennings. Their thin receiving corps could cost them as Brandon Marshall continues to see double teams on a consistent basis.
The Bears must remain healthy as they progress through the final four weeks of the season. Any more injuries on either side of the ball, and they could see their playoff hopes disappear.