By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Most Bears fans threw in the towel weeks -- if not months -- ago on one of the most dysfunctional seasons in team history, but unfortunately the haymakers were relentless. Mercifully, the blows will finally come to and end this Sunday when the 5-10 Bears travel to Minneapolis to conclude the 2014 season against the 6-9 Vikings (Noon, FOX).
The focus has been shifted to see just how far the anticipated sweeping changes will go. Who might be chosen to help pick the once-proud organization up off the canvas and prepare them for another shot at legitimacy? These are the real issues facing the Bears, however, they do have a game to play in between.
In an odd twist of fate, yet easily believed considering what's transpired this season, the Bears turn back to quarterback Jay Cutler to lead the charge against the Vikings. The very player the organization tabbed its franchise quarterback at the start this calendar year, rewarding him with the richest contract in the league, only to bench him prior to Week 16 in what can be accurately characterized as a "too much, too late" move by head coach Marc Trestman.
Just a week ago, Cutler wondered if the Saints game was the last time he'd take the field as a member of the Bears. This week, he's under center against a team he's won seven of his last eight starts against, throwing 20 touchdowns over that span.
"It's been a very, very tough year for him (Cutler) in terms of playing at a consistent level," Trestman said. "But I've seen this before and I have faith that he's going to return. He'll go to work this week and put himself in the best position to help our football team win and take the things out of the game last week that he could have learned by standing and watching and observing the continuity of the game."
Undoubtedly, Cutler has come nowhere near playing at a level commensurate with his pay grade. His 24 turnovers lead the league and have consistently compromised the team's ability to achieve their goal of playing continuity football. One hand washes the other, and with Cutler and the offense unable to lead sustained scoring drives, the downtrodden defense has had a tough enough time holding up through the normal course of a game, let alone games in which the offense gifts the opponent extra possessions.
In their previous meeting in Week 11, Cutler had one of his better statistical performances of the season, throwing for 330 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. However, this time through, the Bears will be without the services of wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Thus, the onus falls on Alshon Jeffery to bounce back from a poor performance last week and lead the way against the Vikings.
Jeffery has recently had his way with the Vikings. In his last two games, he has 23 catches for 384 yards and three touchdowns. Jeffery has scored a touchdown in six-straight games. He'll likely draw Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes in coverage, which will be a great matchup to follow.
"We're going to figure out if (Xavier) Rhodes is gonna go with Alshon (Jeffery)," Cutler said "If he's gonna go with Alshon, Q's (Marquess Wilson) got to get ready to go. We really like that matchup with him. He's (Wilson) still a big guy, a little bit shiftier, which isn't a bad thing at all. They create a lot of pressure, manufacture pressure, show you a lot of different looks. But I think we've got a really good plan going forward."
Despite the team's collective struggle, there are a few individual performances to follow as well. Heading into Sunday's game, Bears running back Matt Forte needs eight catches to break the NFL's record for receptions by a running back (101). Tight end Martellus Bennett is tied for the league-lead in receptions by a tight end (82), both should be heavily involved in the game plan.
"It's (the receptions record) important," Forte said, "but not the most important thing to me out of the level of things that are of importance in this game it's probably one of the least important to me. I'm not gonna go out looking to get eight catches. I'm really just going out there to run the ball, catch the ball, block and do what I've got to do for us to be successful on offense and help us win the game."
Defensively, the Bears will look to replicate their game play from their previous matchup, where they made Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater uncomfortable in the pocket and moved him off his spot with five-man rush packages. It appears that the game has started to slow down for Bridgewater, who has a 100-plus passer efficiency rating in three of his last four games.
The loser of this game finishes last in the NFC North. If the Vikings lose, they'll finish the season winless in the NFC North. Considering both of these teams need more talent to push their programs along, Sunday's game will put a 'W' in the left-hand column for one team, but it will also slide them down the draft order next spring.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.
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