How the Bears respond to back-to-back losses, their aches and pains and the next two games before their bye just may decide their season.
Thanks to the latest stunning loss by injury-riddled Atlanta, at home to the Jets (!), dropping last year's conference finalists to 1-4, it widens the possibility of a wild-card berth coming out of the NFC North.
Let's call 5-0 New Orleans and 4-1 Seattle already "in." It's hard to see Carolina or Tampa Bay being a second team out of the NFC South while the Falcons try to overcome overwhelming odds now (right, Tony Gonzalez?). The 3-2 49ers figure to get well soon, despite the absences of Aldon Smith and Ian Williams. They get Arizona at home, followed by trips to Tennessee and Jacksonville. Look for the 3-2 Cardinals to fade, hosting Seattle after their trip to the Bay Area this Sunday. The way the Falcons are going, the Cards might beat Atlanta at home in Week 8.
The way the NFC East is going, with Dallas and Philadelphia sharing the division "lead" at 2-3, it gets one playoff spot, and the Bears have yet to face all four of those teams, thus further controlling their fate.
So that takes us within the division, where the Bears get the Giants and Redskins (a combined 1-8 at this point, with the `Skins going to Dallas Sunday night) up next. If they can take care of business in those two games, including a roadie in D.C. a week from Sunday but with ten days of rest, they'd sit at 5-2 going into their bye week, preparing for a Monday night matchup in Green Bay.
The 3-2 Lions travel to Cleveland (and who knows what the 3-2 Browns are), host Cincinnati, then host Dallas through the Bears' bye. The 2-2 Packers' next three games, before hosting the Bears, are a trip to Baltimore, a home date with those Browns, and a trip to Minnesota. Those are your only NFC teams at .500 or above right now.
[MORE: Plenty of blame to go around for loss to Saints]
If the Bears can take care of their business against two teams they should beat heading into the Packers matchup after the bye, and avoid further significant injuries, you can't argue much more about the shape they're in.
Getting through Thursday with a victory, and no more health issues, will be critical. They'll have a 10-day break before visiting Washington, then another two weeks before going to Lambeau. Sure, there are certainly issues they need to figure out along the way. But there are a lot of teams who'd love to be sitting where they are right now.
It's not like they don't have work to do and it's hardly a slam dunk, but if the Bears defeat the next two opponents at this "crossroads" point of their season, they'll be in position to control their fate. And in today's topsy-turvy NFL, that's all you can ask for down the stretch, where the Lovie Smith-led Bears faded the past two seasons.