Many fans have already made their decision on the 2012 Chicago Bears and their long-tenured head coach. Season? Over. Coach? Fired. No, Lovie Smith did not drop five touchdown passes this year. No, Lovie Smith did not attempt to arm tackle Adrian Peterson as an undersized safety. No, Lovie Smith did not injure the Bears QB, best interior offensive lineman, middle linebacker, Pro Bowl corner, kicker...etc. But Lovie Smith is the man in charge. And just as he perhaps received too much credit (accompanied by inane contract extension discussion) for the 7-1 Bears, now the coach is receiving abundant blame for four losses over the last five games.
Is it fair? Nobody cares. This is the NFL. Head coaches are judged by one thing only: wins and losses. At 7-1 the Bears were winning. At 1-4 they are losing. But just as their team does, Lovie Smith and this current crop of Bears coaches control their own destiny. If they win out they will make the postseason. (They may not need all three, of course.) And if they make the postseason as either a wild card or somewhat less probably as the NFC North champion it is unlikely Phil Emery will be looking to hire his first head coach come the dead of winter.
These are not games to dread for Bears fans. These are not games to watch hiding behind an oak tree, grasping your childhood blanky. Are the Bears a great team charging toward a Super Bowl crown? Absolutely not. But are they clearly in the discussion as one of the six best teams in the conference? Absolutely. And its the six best teams in the conference who make the tournament to decide who'll travel to New Orleans.
We constantly overrate regular season competition as "litmus test" games or "must-wins" or say things like, "We'll know a lot about this team after this one." There is no overrating the three-game stretch - beginning with the Green Bay Packers - facing the Chicago Bears. These are the definitive games of the 2012 regular season and may be remembered as the definitive games of Lovie Smith's tenure. If the Bears win them they'll play at least one meaningful game in January and Smith will coach in Chicago the next three seasons. If they lose enough of them to miss the postseason, the tenure will be over and we'll all remember Lovie for "Rex is our quarterback" and a Super Bowl failure.
It will not be determined in the backrooms of Halas Hall or on the pages of the two major dailies. It will be determined on the field. Starting at Soldier Field. Starting against the Green Bay Packers.