The Bears had visions of crashing the NFC playoff party three weeks ago after their upset win in Green Bay on Thanksgiving brought them to 5-6, with a couple of winnable home games on the docket.
The Buccaneers had won three of four themselves and had to be thinking the same thing, sitting at 6-6 with a couple of sub-.500 foes next - the Saints at home and the Rams on the road.
Both teams have come up empty since. Both John Fox and Lovie Smith have a lot of young guys who've learned the difficult way that nothing's given, and square off Sunday trying to regain their balance after some rude body blows that punched them out of the post-season. Lovie's roster-gutting and makeover (after his 2-14 debut season by the Bay) is currently a step ahead of Fox's job.
Jameis Winston spent Wednesday's conference calls with Chicago reporters saying the same things about Smith that his Bears players heaped upon him during his nine seasons here: He wouldn't be where he is now without Lovie's guidance and leadership.
Based on his distraction-, red flag-filled, spectacular career at Florida State, there was the concern in some corners that despite his impressive skill set, Winston just might become Ryan Leaf II to Marcus Mariota's Peyton Manning, circa 1998. Both have been outstanding, but it's Winston who needs only 317 yards passing to match Manning's rookie passing yards total (which is third all-time, behind Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, his 2012 and 2011 predecessors as the top overall pick). His 363 yards a week ago in St. Louis set a career-high, and after a sluggish first half he put the team on his back and rallied them back in it versus a pretty talented defense, before falling 31-23.
The league's fourth-ranked rushing attack is the perfect complement for Winston. Doug Martin's 1,305 yards is only nine behind Adrian Peterson for the league's top mark and will provide and interesting storyline the final two weeks over who'll win the title. If the Bears did anything last week, it was help Martin's cause by limiting Peterson to 63 yards, though mainly because Teddy Bridgewater was almost perfect. But Charles Sims has come in and provided nearly 900 scrimmage yards, split almost evenly between rushing and receiving.
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They run behind an offensive line that GM Jason Licht needed to rebuild, and invested a pair of second-round picks in immediate starters Donovan Smith (LT) and (RG) Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart. Former Patriots guard Logan Mankins (knee) did not practice Wednesday, so that may be something to watch. Eight-year veteran Gosder Cherilus has anchored the right side on a line that's allowed just 24 sacks, well below the 52 it gave up last season, with help from Winston's legs.
6-foot-5 second-year tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins remains erratic (16 catches, 230 yards, 3 touchdowns) and is often bumped from the starting lineup by blocker Luke Stocker.
Another second-year target is doing much better. Mike Evans has already eclipsed 1,000 yards with five 100-yard games (9-157 vs. St. Louis). He and Vincent Jackson (who didn't practice Wednesday due to a knee injury that kept him out of the Rams game) rank fourth and second, respectively, this season in first-down catch percentage. Not good for a Bears team that's allowed opponents to convert 58 percent of third-down chances during this losing streak. Adam Humphries is an undrafted rookie free agent and is starting to evolve as a threat in the slot after six catches for 60 yards last Thursday (26-250 for the season).
Word is Lovie (and defensive coordinator Les Frazier) are being more aggressive than your normal "Cover 2" because they lack all the necessary pieces to run it. Their 21 takeaways are tied for 13th in the league (-1 turnover ratio). But they certainly have a couple of studs, with the potential for more.
Despite last November's Bears win at Soldier Field, Gerald McCoy absolutely dominated, which isn't unusual. He revealed this week he's been playing with a torn rotator cuff since Week 2, then has also fought through a surgically-repaired broken hand suffered November 29. But his 7.5 sacks is still fourth among defensive tackles this season, and he was just sent to another Pro Bowl. Former Illini Akeem Spence and ex-Bear Henry Melton are in the interior rotation, combining for three sacks. Jacquies Smith is starting to emerge in his second season and third team after being picked up off the waiver wire in September 2014. He's second on the team with seven sacks.
Lavonte David remains a tackling machine at weakside linebacker, with 126 stops. Since entering the league four years ago, he's second in tackles, tackles for loss, and interceptions among linebackers. Rookie fourth-rounder Kwon Alexander started in the middle from Week 1 and was actually keeping up pretty well with David in the tackles tally, until being suspended for PED use a couple of weeks ago. In his absence, veteran ex-Cowboy Bruce Carter (who was the projected starter after signing a four-year free agent deal) moves in, with Danny Lansanah on the strong side.
Smith hasn't been afraid to replace seemingly-established veterans and that's what he's done at cornerback. Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks have taken a seat behind Sterling Moore, who couldn't convince cornerback-strapped Dallas to keep him, and undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah.
It seemed only a matter of time that every Bears fan's favorite whipping boy the last two years, Chris Conte, landed back in Lovieville. He did. He's been the strong-side starter. He's third on the team in tackles, with a pair of interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles, but was limited in Wednesday's practice with a knee injury in St. Louis that looked a whole lot worse than what it turned out to be. His former partner in crime here, Major Wright, backs up at free safety behind Bradley McDougald.
Kevin O'Dea assisted Dave Toub during a stretch in Lovie's Bears tenure and is his man in charge in Tampa. Their punt and kickoff return units rank fifth and 17th with Bobby Rainey having yet to return one all the way. Connor Barth replaced Kyle Brindza a month into the season and has connected on 22 of 26 field goal attempts (3 of 6 from 40 to 49 yards, 3 of 4 from 50-plus yards).