The race for the last playoff spot in the NFC appears to be down to three teams, and the Bears will be in that jumble regardless of what happens Sunday at the Packers.
But the outlook is bleak if they don’t pull off the upset.
While there’s still a possibility that solid teams (the Buccaneers, Rams or Seahawks) could slip and a slim chance that a straggler (the Panthers) could make a late push, the last wild-card berth will probably come down to the Cardinals, Bears and Vikings. The Cardinals currently are in at 6-4, followed by the 5-5 Bears and 4-6 Vikings.
And even though the Bears still have to play Green Bay twice, they have the easiest remaining schedule, according to opponent winning percentage, at .435, compared to .475 for the Cardinals and .460 for the Vikings.
But that hardly makes them the favorite. Not only would the Bears have to overcome the Cardinals’ one-game lead in the last six weeks, they’d have to stay ahead of a Vikings team that has the tiebreaker thanks to a 19-13 win at Soldier Field. The Bears and Vikings meet in Minneapolis on Dec. 20.
Led by emerging quarterback Kyler Murray, the Cardinals have been the most impressive of the trio.
They had a couple of bad losses early but started 5-2, and their two recent defeats have come against playoff-caliber teams in the Dolphins and Seahawks. They have beaten three teams currently in the playoff field (one was Washington, though), whereas the Bears and Vikings have beaten only one each.
The Cards are also the most balanced team in this race, standing eighth in points scored and 14th in points allowed. That might give them a better chance than the Bears, who have an elite defense and a pitiful offense. The Vikings are 14th in points scored but have allowed the sixth-most points.
That the Vikings are even in the conversation is a surprise after they opened the season 1-5 with a loss to the then-winless Falcons. They climbed back into it by beating the other three NFC North teams in succession, then blew a chance to tie the Bears last week by falling to the Cowboys.
When the Bears started 5-1, which gave them an 83% chance of making the playoffs based on the last three decades of data (before the playoff field expanded from six teams in each conference to seven), it looked as if all they’d have to do is beat the teams they were supposed to beat. After losing to the Vikings two weeks ago, however, it’s not that simple.
If the Bears top the Lions (4-7), Texans (4-7) and Jaguars (1-9), that wouldn’t be enough without beating the Vikings and winning one of the Packers games.
It’s too early to say for sure, but it appears that the threshold for the NFC postseason field will be at least 10 wins. Because the NFC East winner is guaranteed one of the top four spots, it’s possible a team such as the Rams or Cardinals could get left out even at 11-5.
The Bears could get to 10 wins if they can somehow squeak by the Packers once and handle the Vikings on the road, but that would have them finishing the season 5-1. And that lofty projection would assume they don’t squander one against the Texans, for example, which is certainly plausible.
At 10-6 in that scenario, the Bears would still need the Cardinals to stumble. They don’t face any teams that are even close to a winning record other than their home-and-home with the Rams.
That’s a tough spot for the Bears, and even the most optimistic observers would have to stretch their imaginations to envision them pulling it off.