When the schedule was announced back in the spring, this Sunday's game was expected to be a clash between two teams hot in pursuit of a playoff berth. The Jaguars, however, have been reduced to the role of spoiler.
Out of legitimate playoff contention in the AFC, the Jaguars can have major impact on the NFC playoff picture, however, particularly the NFC North title. The Jags face the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday and then host the Green Bay Packers the following Sunday. Chicago (6-6) is one game behind division-leading Minnesota; Green Bay (5-7) is two games behind the Vikings in the North.
It's must-win time for the Bears.
"Teams that normally win 10 games get in the playoffs. That's how we're looking at it. The glass is half full around here so those are the types of answers you're going to get from me," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
The Bears are clearly half full when it comes to stopping the run (sixth in the league), but half empty when it comes to pass-defense (29th). Yeah, you beat the Bears by throwing the ball, but Soldier Field isn't where you'd normally go to throw the ball in December. The winds off Lake Michigan can be harsh at this time of year, as they are expected to be on Sunday. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 20's and include significant wind chill.
Will the Bears have a significant weather advantage over a team from Florida?
"I would hope so," Smith said. "I think most teams would hope they would have a homefield advantage but, in the end, we're going to play in the same weather."
The team that runs the ball the best will probably win the game. The Bears are 14th in the league in rush-offense, led by rookie running back Matt Forte, who has rushed for 1,012 yards, six touchdowns and a 4.1 average. Jacksonville is 20th in the league in rush-defense. The Jaguars are 17th in the league in rushing, as Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor have combined for 1,055 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"I'm sure that's not what Jack (Del Rio) had in mind going into the season," Smith said of the Jaguars' 4-8 record. "They're a team that's committed to the run, have two excellent running backs, a very good quarterback, and always play good, tough defense, so records sometimes can throw you. We see a talented football team coming in here and we're going to have to play our best ball to have a chance to win."
The Jaguars are using the spoiler role as motivation in the final month of the season. All four of their remaining opponents are in the playoff race.
"We're involved in games that are very impactful. We're in that spoiler mode," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said.
"If they beat one of us, it puts us completely out of it, I think," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said of the Jaguars' games against Chicago and Green Bay over the next two weeks. "It's a big challenge to try and get back on track and win this week."
The Bears are coming off a demoralizing defeat in Minnesota. This is gut-check time for Smith's team.
"We just are a little disappointed. The last two division games we lost. We lost at Green Bay and we lost at Minnesota, so we're a little disappointed in the way we didn't show up in those games but we still have four games left and if we win all four we still may get in. Who knows?" Urlacher said.
The Jaguars have yet to be officially eliminated from playoff contention, but that's likely to happen this weekend, regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game.