Despite dropping to 6-6 on the season after their loss to the Minnesota Vikings this past Sunday, the Chicago Bears can still conceivably win the NFC North and make a trip to the playoffs this season.
The Detroit Lions (7-5) currently stand ahead of the Bears and also hold the tiebreaker having won both contests between the two teams this season.
Despite the Lions holding steady at the top of the division, their past would suggest that they are capable of falling apart down the stretch.
The Lions remaining schedule—Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants and Vikings—have a combined 21-26-1 record, while the Bears have a similar but slightly more difficult schedule with the Dallas Cowboys, Eagles, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers remaining. Those four teams currently have a combined record of 23-24-1.
While the Bears need the Lions to stumble down the stretch, they also need to get their own house in order. Here are five quick fixes for Chicago's biggest problems.
Linebacker Lance Briggs has been out with an injured shoulder since the team's matchup with the Washington Redskins back on Oct. 20. While the defense was certainly not at the top of the league even with him in the lineup, it was still more respectable than it has been in his absence.
According to Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, Chicago head coach Marc Trestman said Briggs has "no chance" of playing against the Cowboys this Monday night.
The Bears' defense has been decimated this season. Along with Briggs, it has lost Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Charles Tillman and D.J. Williams—all to season-ending injuries. The run defense has been particularly bad since Briggs was sidelined, and he was not shy in discussing his displeasure with what the defense has been doing in his absence.
"It's really sickening,'' Briggs said, according to the Chicago Tribune's David Haugh. "This time a year ago, stopping the run wasn't an issue. It just wasn't. Now, all of a sudden, it is.''
Will the return of Briggs immediately solve of the team's troubles stopping the run? No, but instead of relying on James Anderson to be making the calls on the field or a rookie fifth-round pick to play weak-side linebacker (Khaseem Greene), Briggs will help bring back some credibility to the run defense and help this team down the stretch.
After more than a year since his last snap, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff finally stepped on the field again this past Sunday.
Playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2012, Ratliff suffered a groin injury six games into the season and finished the year on injured reserve. In training camp this season, he was placed on the team's physically unable to perform (PUP) list due to a hamstring injury and was subsequently released on Oct. 16.
The Bears signed the former four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle on Nov. 4 to help shore up their injury-depleted defensive line. He played 23 snaps against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13 in his Bears debut.
Head coach Marc Trestman was complimentary of Ratliff's performance in his first game and is looking forward to seeing more from him, telling Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago:
I thought he played well. We had him at 20-something snaps. We stayed true to that. I heard him come off a couple of times and say, 'Let me stay in my rhythm.' He felt he was mixing it up in there. So we felt pretty good that he'll be able to play much longer this week.
For a defensive line that has had to start guys like Christian Tupou and Landon Cohen inside, as well as move Corey Wootton from defensive end to defense tackle, the addition of Ratliff immediately gives that front four credibility.
While it is hard to claim that he will return to being the dominating interior presence he once was, Ratliff will help add stability to a unit that ranks dead last in the NFL against the run.
When the Bears signed Michael Bush in the offseason of 2012, the assumption was that he would become the Bears answer in short-yardage situations.
He struggled at times last year in that role, and he as well as Matt Forte have struggled again this season.
According to Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com, the Bears have successfully converted 24-of-42 opportunities (57.1 percent) when they've needed one yard for a touchdown or a first down this season. On the surface those numbers are not terrible, but that stat has gotten progressively worse in recent weeks.
In their first seven games this season, the Bears converted 18-of-26 of their short-yardage situations but are just 6-of-16 in their last five games.
So how do the Bears improve on short yardage? As simple as it may sound, they need to execute better. During his press conference this past Monday, according to Mayer, Trestman talked about the need for his offensive line to play better as a unit in order to resolve these short-yardage issues:
All five [offensive linemen] haven't connected in putting together the proper step and footwork and angles. I'm not going to pin it down to one guy because nobody in that room would want me to do that. But everybody's got to be working in the same direction on these short-yardage plays and we've taken turns in not getting that done.
If the Bears continue to struggle in short-yardage situations then the likelihood of a playoff run goes out the window.
Settling for field goals will only take a team so far.
In the Bears' last three games, they've committed 29 penalties for 249 yards, including 111 penalty yards on 13 penalties against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11.
Against the St. Louis Rams, Devin Hester had a punt returned for a touchdown taken away by a penalty on Craig Steltz, and Jon Bostic was flagged for taunting in Week 13 against Minnesota following a defensive stop on third down that resulted in a new set of downs for the Vikings' offense.
It's tough. We have to look at the film and make some adjustments. It's been like that the past two weeks and that's not us. Usually we play a pretty clean game and today, just like last week, we shot ourselves in a foot few times and weren't able to overcome penalties and stupid mistakes. We will watch film tomorrow and make the adjustments and get better. We are capable of change and we're capable of growth.
The Bears did improve against the Vikings, limiting their penalties to six flags for 51 yards.
When a team is struggling on defense and struggling to score points it becomes even more difficult when they are committing penalties and making tough situations even tougher.
There is no denying that Josh McCown has been terrific in relief of the injured Jay Cutler this season. In four starts and playing in relief in two other games this season, McCown has thrown for 1,461 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception.
According to Chicago Bears Radio sideline reporter Zach Zaidman, the Bears are averaging 22.7 points per game in Josh McCown's four starts this year but are averaging 28.7 in the six games started and completed by Jay Cutler.
Cutler has been out with an ankle injury that he suffered against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 10, this after returning from a groin injury that he suffered against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 20.
According to ESPN Chicago, Cutler will not play Monday night against Dallas. Head coach Marc Trestman said that he "is continuing to progress," and his status remains week to week.
Since 2011, the Bears are 18-7 in games in which Cutler starts. Despite the interceptions and sometimes boneheaded mistakes, Cutler knows how to win.
McCown has shown that he can lead this offense and put up big numbers, but they have fallen off in the red zone, simply because he does not possess the ability to make some of the throws that Cutler can.
If this team is to make a serious push for the playoffs, the return of Cutler may be the quick fix that this team needs.