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Bears mired in crowded race

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Three teams have clinched playoff berths in the NFC. Three vacancies remain.

It’s no longer entirely up to the Bears as to whether they’ll claim one of those spots.

At 8-6, the Bears are on the outside looking in when it comes to the NFC playoff picture. They likely will need to win both of their remaining regular-season games against the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions while hoping that other playoff contenders such as the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins go cold.

Bears coach Lovie Smith acknowledged his team’s position in a crowded playoff race Monday at Halas Hall. The Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers each have secured playoff berths, while the Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Vikings occupy positions four through six in the NFC standings entering Week 16.

The Bears, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants each remain in the hunt with 8-6 records, but if the season ended today, none of those teams would be in the playoffs.

“There are a lot of 8-6 teams, and that is the message and how it affects us,” Smith said. “No, we haven’t gone over every scenario and how it happens. We just know there are a lot of us in it, and, for us, it’s about finishing 10-6.

“In order to get to 10-6, it’s about beating Arizona and getting to 9-6. It’s as simple as that. That’s the approach most of the 8-6 teams will take.”

To improve to 9-6, the Bears will have to play much better than how they looked on film against the Packers. Grades from Sunday's game:

Quarterback: D

The Bears’ offense needed a big game from Jay Cutler (54 snaps), and he failed to deliver. Maybe Devin Hester ran the wrong route on Cutler’s costly interception late in the first half, but Cutler also double-clutched and telegraphed the pass. Cutler completed only 12 passes, which marked his worst performance in a full game since – guess what? – his previous outing against the Packers in Week 2.

Running backs: C

Matt Forte (51 snaps) started fast with 37 rushing yards on the first series but managed only 32 rushing yards for the rest of the game. On back-to-back runs at the 1-yard line, Forte danced instead of powering through the line of scrimmage. Armando Allen (3 snaps) picked up 15 yards on a screen pass in a rare appearance.

Wide receivers: C

Brandon Marshall (51 snaps) was predictably stellar with six catches on seven targets, and the stiff arm that he delivered against Packers cornerback Casey Hayward on his way to the end zone was a thing of beauty. Alshon Jeffery (43 snaps) did not deserve three penalties, but he needs to be subtle when it comes to making contact with defenders. Devin Hester (21 snaps) claimed that he ran the correct route on Cutler’s interception, but he was not targeted again after that play.

Tight ends: D

On 26 drop-back passing plays, Cutler did not target his tight ends once. That speaks partly the failures of Kellen Davis (39 snaps) as a receiver and partly to the need for extra blockers to help a beleaguered offensive line. That plan didn’t work, either, as Clay Matthews overpowered Matt Spaeth (17 snaps) to stuff Forte for a 2-yard loss in the second quarter.

Offensive line: D

The five players on the offensive line rotated in and out, but the result remained equally bad. Gabe Carimi (29 snaps) was benched in the first half in place of Chris Spencer (38 snaps), who fared no better. Roberto Garza (54 snaps) flinched before a snap on third-and-1 for a false start, and the Bears could not convert from third-and-6 on the next play. James Brown (41 snaps) played like an undrafted rookie.

Defensive line: B

Julius Peppers (63 snaps) bull-rushed Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse on his way to 1-˝ sacks and five tackles, but made a costly mistake when he was flagged for a 15-yard penalty on third-and-7 late in the fourth quarter. Corey Wootton (60 snaps) also registered 1-˝ sacks but allowed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to juke past him for a first down. Frequent rollouts helped Rodgers elude pressure from the front four.

Linebackers: B

Injured linebacker Brian Urlacher deserves an “F” for his foolish criticism of Bears fans for booing yet another loss to the Packers, but the team’s healthy linebackers played mostly well against Green Bay’s high-powered offense. Lance Briggs (74 snaps) led the team with nine tackles, while Nick Roach (74 snaps) held his own with a pass break-up and a fumble recovery. Blake Costanzo (20 snaps) made his first start but didn’t play much against the Packers’ pass-first offense.

Cornerbacks: D

Charles Tillman (73 snaps) notched his 10th forced fumble of the season, but it was a rough day for the secondary. The Packers picked on nickelback D.J. Moore (54 snaps) for the following: a 29-yard gain to Randall Cobb across the middle, a 31-yard gain to Cobb down the right sideline, a 13-yard gain to Cobb across the middle and an 8-yard touchdown to James Jones across the middle. Kelvin Hayden (74 snaps) was beat in one-on-one coverage for Jones’ first touchdown.

Safeties: C

As we said, it was a rough day for the secondary. Chris Conte (74 snaps) was called for pass interference in the end zone for grabbing the jersey and right arm of Jermichael Finley, which set up the Packers’ third touchdown. Major Wright (74 snaps) gave up a fourth-down conversion in the first half when he allowed Finley to cross in front of him for an 8-yard reception.

Special teams: B

The punt team gave the Packers new life on the first series by having 12 men on the field, but that miscue did not cost the Bears any points. Hester shined with 105 return yards (63 kickoff, 42 punt) but was brought down by Packers punter Tim Masthay in the first quarter. In his NFL debut, Joe Anderson was outstanding as he nearly blocked a punt and tackled Cobb at the Packers’ 11-yard line on a kickoff.

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