After so many months, “March Madness” has arrived.
OK, not really.
But it’s tournament season for the Bears, who have adopted college basketball’s win-or-else template for the remainder of the season.
How long the season continues depends on how long the Bears (8-6) survive and advance. Their first-round game is today against the Arizona Cardinals (5-9).
“Obviously, you know when it’s ‘March Madness’ time, every game counts,” Bears cornerback Zack Bowman said after a recent practice at Halas Hall. “There is no lose and, ‘We’ll come back next week and put it all together and have another shot.’ No.
“Every game is important. Every game is critical. Every game is a must-win in order to make it to the national championship.”
The Bears could have avoided such drama until the playoffs, but a late-season slump has forced them to adjust. They have lost five of the past six games and probably will need back-to-back wins against Arizona and the Detroit Lions to make the playoffs.
Other factors also will play a role in the Bears’ postseason forecast.
If the Minnesota Vikings lose to the Houston Texans today, the Bears’ playoff hopes will remain alive regardless of their outcome against the Cardinals. If the Vikings beat the Texans and the Bears lose to the Cardinals, the Bears will be eliminated.
The next two games for the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys also could influence the Bears’ playoff chances.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler brushed aside all of the what-if playoff scenarios this week in favor of a simple approach.
“We can’t worry about it,” Cutler said. “We’ve just got to get to nine wins. We can’t go anywhere unless we get to nine, and if we get to nine, we can talk about 10.
“But right now, eight isn’t good enough. And nine might not be good enough, either.”
More often than not, the Bears’ offense hasn’t been good enough. Cutler has thrown 14 interceptions and been sacked 35 times, and he will have to be careful against an Arizona defense that leads the NFL in interceptions and tied for seventh in sacks.
On defense, however, the Bears should have the advantage. The Cardinals’ offense is last in the NFL with 264.2 yards per game, and rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley has thrown for zero touchdowns and six interceptions entering his fourth career start.
Both teams possess dangerous kick returners: Devin Hester for the Bears and Patrick Peterson for the Cardinals. Neither has scored on special-teams this season after combining for seven return touchdowns in 2011 (Peterson 4, Hester 3).
Bears coach Lovie Smith has remained optimistic with all three phases of his team throughout a bumpy season. But he acknowledged the pressure that lay ahead, starting with today’s game at University of Phoenix Stadium.
In mid-March, six wins separate an NCAA tournament team from a championship. As the Bears see it, six wins separate them from their goal of winning a Super Bowl.
“We’ve got to win out,” Smith said. “We realize that. We know the road that we have to go to achieve our goal, and that’s on the road – a long road trip, you could say.
“Of course, none of that matters, though, without getting a win this week.”
What to watch for
Five things to track during today’s Bears game.
1. Proceed with caution
The Cardinals ruined their playoff chances with a nine-game losing streak, but they proved last week against the Detroit Lions that they still could take away the ball. The Cardinals scored four touchdowns off of turnovers, including a 102-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Greg Toler.
2. Just like old times
Gabe Carimi is expected to start at right tackle today for the Bears in place of Jonathan Scott, who injured his hamstring last week against the Green Bay Packers. Carimi started the first 10 games of the season at right tackle before losing his job because of poor pass protection.
3. History lesson
Brandon Marshall already owns the Bears’ single-season record with 107 receptions, and he is about to set another franchise record. Marshall has tallied 1,398 receiving yards, which is 3 yards shy of surpassing ex-Bears wide receiver Marcus Robinson, who had 1,400 receiving yards in 1999.
4. Rattle the rookie
Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley earned his first career win as a starter last week against Detroit, although he passed for 104 yards and no touchdowns while running back Beanie Wells rushed for three scores. Look for the Bears to try to pressure Lindley early and often, which could result in more sacks for Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton.
5. On the hot seat
Both coaches could use a win today (and another win next week) to help their job security. Bears coach Lovie Smith is 79-63 since he arrived in 2004 but has missed the playoffs in five of his first eight seasons, while Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is 45-49 since 2007 and will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season.