MINNEAPOLIS – One by one, Bears players quietly filed out of the visitors’ locker room Sunday and walked down a dark hallway to board the team bus.
Someone at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome had lined the concrete path with rubber mats to prevent anyone from slipping.
The Bears have fallen, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they will be able to get up in time to earn a playoff berth. A 21-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings marked the fourth loss in the past five games for the Bears (8-5), who fell behind by two quick touchdowns and could not recover.
Next comes the Bears’ toughest test yet: a rematch against the Green Bay Packers (9-4), who lead the Bears by a game for first place in the NFC North after beating Detroit, 27-20.
“This is crunch time for us,” said Bears defensive end Israel Idonije, who was part of a unit that allowed Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to run freely for 154 yards and two touchdowns. “The intensity has to pick up.”
Otherwise, the Bears can pack up and forget about contending for a Super Bowl title.
Shortly after Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder took a knee to kill the final seconds off of the game clock, Bears coach Lovie Smith spoke with his players behind closed doors. By the time that Smith stepped in front of a bank of microphones and TV cameras, he had turned his focus to next week’s game and its significant implications for the Bears’ playoff chances.
“I’m just thinking about us getting back on a winning streak next week,” Smith said.
“We’re disappointed in how some of those games have gone. All of the games, really.
“We’re disappointed in the game, but when you’re disappointed like that and you have your rival coming up back at home, we have to rally. We feel bad, but then it’s all on Green Bay.”
Actually, it’s all on the Bears.
Despite outgaining the Vikings, 438-248, the Bears trailed for all but 3:07 in a noisy building filled with 64,134 fans wearing mostly purple and gold. Peterson gashed the Bears’ defense for 104 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone, and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw a pair of interceptions, including one that Vikings safety Harrison Smith returned 56 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Add in dropped passes and a half-dozen injured players – including Cutler, who exited the game in the fourth quarter because of a stiff neck – and frustration accumulated faster than the several inches of snow that fell outside of the stadium throughout the game.
A pair of passing touchdowns to Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall were not enough to erase the Vikings’ lead, nor were they enough to eliminate a nagging question: If the Bears are not good enough to beat the Vikings (7-6), then how will they fare against a Packers team that has beaten them in five consecutive games and in seven of the past eight games?
Bears defensive end Julius Peppers dismissed the doubters. As evidence, he pointed to how the Vikings snapped a losing streak against the Bears that had lasted for nearly four seasons.
“These guys hadn’t beaten us in six times, either,” said Peppers, whose voice rose slightly with a hint or irritation. “So it can be done. Streaks can be broken.
“We don’t have to do anything heroic or superhuman to beat Green Bay. We’ve just got to go out and execute our game plan and play well from the start.”
In other words, the opposite of what the Bears did against the Vikings.
A late-season rebound remains possible for the Bears in a conference that is crowded with playoff contenders. After hosting the Packers next Sunday, the Bears will wrap up their regular-season schedule with a pair of road games against the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.
Most likely, two more wins will be enough to lift the Bears into the playoffs.
The Bears want three more wins. At least a few players believe that they have no other choice.
“Right now, we just have to win out,” Marshall said. “Forget the X’s and O’s. Forget the first 11, 12 games of the season. All of that doesn’t matter at this point.
“We have the guys in this locker room that can get it done, and we can get it done.”
Peppers echoed Marshall’s “win-out” declaration.
“We’ve got three games left, and we’re going to have to win these last three,” Peppers said. “And that’s fine. We can do that.
“We have a team full of veterans that understand where we’re at. The confidence is not wavering. We’re fully confident we can do it. We can pull them out.”
• Tom Musick covers Chicago professional sports for Shaw Media. Write to him at email@example.com.