The Chicago Bears thought they were headed to the playoffs not too long ago. Now, they can forget about that.
They'll be playing for nothing more than pride when they close the season at Minnesota this week, trying to stop their longest slide in nearly a decade, after their playoff hopes were dashed with a 35-21 loss at Green Bay on Sunday night.
It's a stunning fall for a team that was cruising along not too long ago. Injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte led to a sharp turn, and the Bears (7-8) never found their way.
Not since the 2002 team's eight-game skid on the way to a 4-12 finish under Dick Jauron have the Bears dropped this many in a row. They had not lost more than four straight since coach Lovie Smith took over in 2004, yet everything crumbled just as they capped off their fifth straight win.
Cutler broke his right thumb trying to help make a tackle following an interception late in a win over the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 20, and Chicago hasn't won a game since. It didn't help that Forte sprained a ligament in his right knee against Kansas City two weeks later, leaving the Bears without their two best offensive players. Odds are they won't play this week either, even if Smith wouldn't rule them out.
Cutler is scheduled to have pins removed from his surgically repaired thumb on Tuesday, and Smith wouldn't say if he'll practice this week.
''If they're healthy and ready to go, we won't tell them no,'' Smith said Monday. ''But there are some other guys we feel comfortable playing. They're making progress, but if we had other things on the line, we would take the same approach. We would never stop a player that wanted to play who was healthy and really ready to go, but I don't know if that'll be the case.''
The Bears are probably feeling more comfortable about quarterback Josh McCown and running back Kahlil Bell after they turned in solid performances.
McCown got the nod over a struggling Caleb Hanie against the Packers and completed 19 of 28 passes for 242 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Not bad for a guy who had not taken an NFL snap since 2009 and was coaching quarterbacks at a North Carolina high school when the Bears called last month.
Bell delivered, too.
With Marion Barber sidelined by a calf injury, Bell ran for 121 yards on 23 attempts and just might have done enough to supplant him as the No. 2 running back behind Forte.
''I'm not interested in that,'' Bell said. ''I never woke up in the morning and said I'm going out there to be the No. 2 running back on any team that I've ever been on. My goal is to be a starter in this league, and that's what I'm shooting for. I'm not settling for anything less.''
Smith was impressed.
''Based on what he's done his entire time here, you would feel comfortable,'' he said. ''With a lot of players you wonder, `Well, can they do it?' You may be in the backup role, but you've never played. But when you get a chance to see a player in a backup role and he performs that way, you have to be excited about his future.''
Smith also pointed out that Barber - who missed time in the preseason with a calf problem - has ''been injured quite a bit'' and added: ''That is a factor in determining players on your roster, what position he has and all of that.''
He also said it's ''just one of the things that you use to evaluate.''
The Bears might also look at costly mental and physical gaffes by Barber that contributed to close losses against Kansas City and Denver.
Given all that, it's not a stretch to think Bell could be moving up the depth chart.
''Now that I have an opportunity, I'm just going to try to run with it, showcase my ability,'' he said.
He figures to get another chance this week and so does McCown, with Smith dismissing the idea of giving rookie Nathan Enderle a look. Smith also shrugged off the notion that the Bears could have gone with McCown sooner.
''We felt like the time for Josh to play was last night,'' Smith said. ''We were giving him an opportunity to catch up a little bit. He'd been out of football. When a guy plays the way he did last night, you can always say that. But there was nothing . to me we followed the proper course to get him out there on the football team.''