So much about the Chicago Bears' short- and long-term future will be decided in Week 17.
Sunday night's 54-11 thrashing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles meant Chicago didn't clinch the NFC North. The Bears will now have to beat or tie the Green Bay Packers, who lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier Sunday, to win the division.
The outcome of that game could drastically affect the Bears' offseason approach.
A win might encourage Chicago to continue the Jay Cutler experience another season. A loss, and culmination of another late-season collapse under Cutler's direction, could just as strongly convince the Bears to go in a different direction.
For now, the Bears have to find a way to dust themselves off and begin preparations for Week 17's win-and-you're-in battle with a division rival.
"We've got to put this game behind us & focus on next week because next week is really what matters," Bears defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff said, via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune.
With everything to play for Sunday night in Philadelphia, the Bears came up small on almost every front.
Chicago's defense gave up season highs in total yards (514) and rushing yards (289). Eagles quarterback Nick Foles threw two touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 131.7. Both LeSean McCoy (133) and Bryce Brown (115) cracked 100 yards rushing and found the end zone (McCoy did twice).
On offense, the Bears managed just one touchdown, a two-point conversion and a 50-yard field goal, and the team's 257 yards set a new season low. Cutler was sacked five times. Matt Forte was dropped in the end zone for a second-half safety, and Cutler threw a late pick-six to Brandon Boykin.
Even the special teams stumbled, as Devin Hester's fumble in the first quarter helped open up the floodgates. Later, a trick play resulted in Chicago starting a first-half drive inside its own 20-yard line.
Rarely does a team with so much to play for put together such an uninspiring result.
|Bears-Eagles Box Score, Week 16|
The Bears are now 8-7, and Sunday's visit from the 7-7-1 Packers will determine which underwhelming and disappointing club is going to represent the division in the playoffs.
Earlier Sunday, Green Bay left the door wide open for the Bears to make Week 17 a moot point. The Packers went back and forth with the Steelers but came up short—at home against a team with a losing record.
Everything was set up perfectly for the Bears, who then proceeded to play their worst game of the season.
There is plenty of blame to go around after losing by 43 points. The run defense continues to be the worst in the NFL. The offensive line created very few holes in the running game and was consistently beat by Philadelphia's blitz packages.
But Cutler, who has two shaky performances since returning from ankle and groin injuries, will also take heat—and rightfully so.
The Bears quarterback threw for 222 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He had a 73.8 passer rating, and Trestman pulled him in favor of Josh McCown in the fourth quarter. The move was more to protect his starters against injury for Week 17, but it was also indicative of the complete failure those same starters produced.
The Bears offense punted on four straight possessions to open the game. By the time Chicago got on the board, Philadelphia had already scored 24 points.
In the second half, only one of Chicago's six drives went more than 40 yards. And the turnovers continued at quarterback.
Cutler now has three interceptions in his last two starts, which is three times as many as backup Josh McCown has produced over his 224 attempts this season. Sunday's pick was returned for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 47-11 lead.
|Jay Cutler: Looking Back and Forward|
|Career vs. GB (8 games)||142/257||1,702||9/16||61.5||1-7|
Now, Cutler must find a way to beat a Packers team that he has struggled mightily against.
Over eight career games against Green Bay, Cutler has 16 interceptions (most in his career against one team) and a 61.5 passer rating. Most importantly, he is 1-7 in those games.
Back on Nov. 4, McCown threw two touchdown passes, and the Bears beat the Packers at Lambeau Field 27-20.
Cutler might need to have a similar performance—or at the very least, a similar outcome—to ensure his future rests in Chicago.
If the Bears lose next Sunday and allow the Packers to celebrate a division championship at Soldier Field—much like Lovie Smith's Bears allowed in the NFC Championship Game in 2010—the brass in Chicago could very easily reconsider their options at the quarterback position this offseason.
Cutler is 30 years old and scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this spring. McCown, 34, will also be a free agent. One way or another, the Bears have big decisions looming at quarterback.
Smart money is still on Chicago using the franchise tag or negotiating a more team-friendly deal to keep Cutler around for the next handful of years. But team decision-makers could certainly use some convincing, and there's no better way to encourage that feeling than by beating the Packers in a winner-take-all clash.
For now, Trestman has sidestepped any questions about his quarterback situation. After the game, the Bears coach ensured Cutler would start against the Packers, via Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago.
Pressure will be on Cutler and the Bears to get over Week 16's humbling defeat in Philadelphia and finally knock off the Packers in an important game.
For the team's sake, a loss next Sunday will mean another postseason sitting at home.
For Cutler, another loss will mean an even trickier offseason of decisions needed to be made at Halas Hall.