The Chicago Bears' prolonged slump has left them likely needing victories in back-to-back road games and some help to reach the playoffs.
The Bears will seek the first of those wins Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, who are eager to build on the end to a lengthy skid.
It appeared Chicago would easily make it to the postseason after a 7-1 start, but losses in five of the past six games have put its fortunes in jeopardy. A 21-13 defeat to Green Bay last Sunday dropped the Bears (8-6) behind Seattle and Minnesota in the race for the NFC's two wild-card berths.
The loss was also Chicago's seventh in a row in December. The Bears are 10-14 in the month since they reached the Super Bowl following the 2006 season and have made the playoffs only once.
"This week, we're to that 'must' game,'" said coach Lovie Smith, whose future is in question. "I mean, the tournament has begun for us. ... We have to find a way to get to 10-6 and see what happens."
While Seattle and Minnesota face playoff-bound foes this week, Chicago will get to take on a seemingly lesser opponent in Arizona (5-9). The Bears, though, could use a better performance after being outgained 391-190 by the Packers and registering only 67 of those yards in the second half.
They scored their only points over the final 30 minutes - a pair of Olindo Mare field goals - after two Green Bay fumbles and finished 0 for 9 on third-down conversions. That performance led to a number of boos from Chicago fans, who were criticized by injured linebacker Brian Urlacher later that night on a local television show.
The Bears are averaging 14.2 points over their last six games after producing 29.5 per contest in their first eight.
"I told the guys we can't feel sorry for ourselves offensively," quarterback Jay Cutler told the team's official website. "We just have to do whatever we have to do to win this game. You're not going to fix every problem in one week, so we just have to focus on ourselves and what we have to do internally offensively to win one game, and we'll move on from there."
Chicago won't have backup running back Michael Bush (ribs) to help it bounce back after he was placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday. Bush had 411 yards and five touchdowns.
The Bears will also have to contend with an Arizona defense that's snagged a league-best 22 interceptions - one more than Chicago - and held opposing quarterbacks to a 68.0 rating. The Cardinals had three interceptions in last week's 38-10 home victory over Detroit and returned two for touchdowns while ending a nine-game skid.
Arizona converted all four of Detroit's turnovers into touchdowns and running back Beanie Wells matched a career high with three TDs.
"I think it speaks volumes about the team going forward, that you have young guys and veteran guys that, in the midst of something that was pretty tough, stick together the way they did and play the way they did," coach Ken Whisenhunt told the team's official website.
Cutler had three touchdowns and an interception in the Bears' most recent matchup with Arizona on Nov. 8, 2009, but Chicago was hardly competitive in a 41-21 home defeat.
The Bears, winners in five of the past seven matchups, are making their first visit to Arizona since their famed 24-23 comeback victory Oct. 16, 2006. They trailed by 20 points late in the third quarter before returning two fumbles and a punt for touchdowns.
Chicago receiver Brandon Marshall will try to help secure another win in Arizona while breaking the franchise's single-season yardage record. Marshall, who already has a team-record 107 receptions, is three yards shy of surpassing Marcus Robinson's 1,400 in 1999.
Marshall had some choice words for his teammates following last Sunday's loss, saying everyone involved with the offense should be held accountable "even if that means jobs."
"When you make a comment like that, it's almost guaranteed that you're going to rub some people the wrong way, and then there's some people that might respond to it in a positive way," he said. "It's a little bit of both."
Marshall caught five passes from Cutler for 58 yards in his only game against the Cardinals, a 37-20 victory for Denver on Dec. 17, 2006.
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