After a one-year hiatus, the Super Bowl losers' curse is back, and the Bears are the victims.
It started at the turn of the century when the Giants lost to the Ravens in the Super Bowl and came back with a 7-9 season. The Rams, Bucs, Panthers and Eagles followed their Super Bowl appearances with losing seasons.
In 2006, the Seahawks had symptoms of the curse by losing Steve Hutchinson in free agency and fighting through an injury-plagued season that saw quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander miss time. Despite those problems, the Seahawks won the NFC West and a playoff game.
The Bears haven't been as fortunate. If they lose to the Redskins on Thursday night, they will drop to 5-8 and be guaranteed of not having a winning season. With games ahead against Minnesota, Green Bay and New Orleans, the Bears are facing the strong likelihood of a losing season.
So what went wrong?
Though the Bears had injuries, they weren't devastating. At least six teams had more missed starts than the 53 endured by Bears starters because of injuries.
It wasn't as if free agency raided the Bears following their Super Bowl success. The front office made the decision to trade halfback Thomas Jones to the Jets to satisfy his desire to get a bigger contract and to give Cedric Benson the chance to start. Surely, the Bears can't blame their bad 2007 season on the defensive tackle losses of Tank Johnson, Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott.
Like most Super Bowl losers, though, the Bears followed the unfortunate pattern of thinking their reputation alone would produce a winning season. In the past week, defensive starters have admitted that the Bears thought they were an elite team destined to return to the playoffs.
Another factor is the makeup of the NFC North. In recent years, the Bears have benefited greatly from the ineptitude of their division rivals. The Lions haven't had a winning season since 2000. The Vikings were in a quarterback transition. The Packers had a 38-year-old quarterback with a young, rebuilding team and weren't expected to make a playoff run. Like the Eagles during their four-year run atop what was then a weak NFC East, the Bears thought they were in Year 3 of a four-year championship run.
As it turned out, the North arose while the Bears didn't. Quarterback Rex Grossman played himself out of the starting job early because of turnovers, and the defense wasn't a monster this season. Injuries played a part in the defense's downfall. It hurt Chicago to lose safety Mike Brown's leadership. Nathan Vasher missed most of this season with a groin injury, robbing Chicago of a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris has been playing hurt all season, and opponents are getting enough blocks on middle linebacker Brian Urlacher to wear him down.
After blowing a nine-point lead at home against the Giants in Week 13, the Bears can forget about the playoffs if they lose on Thursday night.
Once again, FedEx Field will be emotional. The Redskins are still suffering from the tragic death of Sean Taylor. Going to the funeral Monday and having only a walk-through Tuesday will prevent Washington from getting a full practice in before the Bears game.
The Redskins will be playing on instincts and emotions. The Bears are just playing out the schedule. Grossman is trying to win back the front office and get a contract extension. The offensive line is being reviewed. Thursday night could be the last hurrah of this season for the Bears.
1. Pittsburgh at New England: The Eagles and Ravens have made the undefeated Patriots look vulnerable. Both teams proved that tight coverage on slot receiver Wes Welker and double coverage of Randy Moss can slow down the Patriots' passing offense. Both used varied blitzes to pressure quarterback Tom Brady. Both exposed holes in New England's aging linebacking corps. If a running back can get past the first line of the Patriots' defense, he can gain good yardage.
W ith all that being said, the Patriots still have the ace in the hole -- Brady. Unless the Steelers open a 10-point lead with two minutes left, Brady can execute the game-winning or game-tying touchdown drive. The Patriots know the significance of this game. If they beat the Steelers, they are probably going undefeated in the regular season. Their following two games are potential 30-point blowouts against the Jets and Dolphins. The Giants, if they clinch the wild card this week or next, will be resting starters for the final week of the season, so they should be beatable if Bill Belichick keeps his starters on the field for the finale. After a couple of tough weeks on the road, Belichick will have his team focused on beating the Steelers and keeping Don Shula's champagne on ice.
2. San Diego at Tennessee: The Chargers are finally starting to look like the Chargers. LaDainian Tomlinson is hitting his stride and could challenge for the league's rushing title again. The attack is present once again in the defense. Shawne Merriman is re-establishing himself as a feared pass-rusher and the defensive line is starting to get healthier and better at stopping the run.
At 7-5, the Chargers are poised to win the AFC West, but they are facing a desperate team in Nashville. The Titans' defense regained its growl in Week 13 when DT Albert Haynesworth returned from a hamstring injury. During his three-game absence, the Titans lost their fire. Haynesworth will have a favorable matchup against Chargers center Nick Hardwick and the interior of the Chargers' offensive line. The Titans know they need to get this win to stay in the playoff race.
3. Arizona at Seattle: Each week is becoming more of a challenge for Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Somehow, he's kept the Cardinals' playoff hopes alive despite numerous problems. Quarterback Kurt Warner is playing with torn ligaments in his left elbow. Whisenhunt has lost his two top pass-rushers, Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor. He's lost his best defensive player, safety Adrian Wilson. He could face the Seahawks without wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
The Cardinals lose the NFC West to the Seahawks if they lose this game, but they still would have an outside shot at the NFC's final wild card. The Seahawks, particularly after their road victories over the Eagles and Rams, feel as though they are getting that late-season swagger back. This is the last of the eight division races still in play, but the Seahawks could close out the title if they win Sunday.
4. N.Y. Giants at Philadelphia: As great as Giants coach Tom Coughlin must feel about being 8-4 and within a victory of clinching a wild-card berth, this team must be driving him crazy. Although the Giants pulled out a comeback victory over the Bears in Week 13, they appear to be in the midst of another second-half fade. Among Coughlin's chief concerns is his team's turnover ratio. The Giants, despite an 8-4 record, are minus-6 in that category.
The Giants know they can't keep winning if they continue to pile up mistakes. Eli Manning continues to make bad quarterback decisions. With RB Derrick Ward out for the season, Coughlin needs to get this victory so he can rest oft-injured RB Brandon Jacobs and keep him fresh for the playoffs.
5. Dallas at Detroit: Lions fans are losing faith. During the team's 6-2 start, fans were starting to believe Jon Kitna's forecast of a 10-win season. Now, mired in a four-game losing streak, Lions fans are worried about witnessing another 10-loss season.
The Cowboys come to town with a high-powered offense and a defense that could pump up its sack numbers. Kitna will play despite having a beat-up body. Gone is wide receiver Roy Williams, who suffered a knee sprain. The running game is invisible. The Lions play with great energy at home, but even that is starting to slip away. A loss would be emotionally hard for the Lions to overcome.
6. Indianapolis at Baltimore: The Ravens' defense left its hearts and souls on the field Monday night in a hard loss to the Patriots. The Ravens had the Patriots on the ropes, but somehow Brady pulled out the victory in the final seconds. As proud as this unit is, it's going to be hard for the Ravens' defense to generate the energy and emotion to play at an elite level against the Colts. At 4-8, the Ravens are playing for next year and it's hard for veteran defenders to accept that.
Colts QB Peyton Manning might not have Marvin Harrison back, but he's getting the most out of RB Joseph Addai and the rest of his receiving corps. Ravens QB Kyle Boller played one of his best games against an aging Patriots defense, but he will have to readjust to the speed of the Colts' D.
7. Oakland at Green Bay: Packers QB Brett Favre should be able to extend his consecutive games streak, but how effective will he be? A year ago, Favre suffered an elbow injury and didn't miss a start. But he looked shaky for two games, throwing only one touchdown pass and five interceptions. To make matters worse, the Raiders do one thing well, and that's defend against the pass.
The Packers have to bounce back from their loss to the Cowboys, even though they don't have a lot of incentive to play at their peak. The NFC North is theirs. They know they are going to be the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Their closing schedule doesn't have a team with a winning record.
8. Minnesota at San Francisco: Thanks to RB Adrian Peterson, the Vikings are making a playoff run, and I do mean run. Peterson and Chester Taylor have made it easy for QB Tarvaris Jackson to manage the offense without having to win games through the air.
The Vikings head to San Francisco with the notion that a spot in the playoffs is suddenly becoming theirs to lose. They host the Bears on Monday night in Week 15 and finish with Washington and Denver. This should be their easiest game. The 49ers' defense is beat up, and Frank Gore should have a tough time running against the Vikings' defense.
9. Cleveland at N.Y. Jets: Finally, the Browns had a call go against them at the end of a game. They beat the Seahawks (Week 9) in overtime when a replay official overturned a first-down spot. They beat the Ravens (Week 11) after Phil Dawson's double-doink field goal sent the game into overtime. In Week 13, tight end Kellen Winslow appeared to be forced out after catching a potential game-winning touchdown pass, but the Browns couldn't get the call.
The Browns catch the Jets at the right time, and this game shouldn't come down to the final seconds. Quarterback Derek Anderson should be able to move the ball on the Jets' defense and the Jets' offense isn't potent enough as it tries to develop around QB Kellen Clemens. This should be an easy win for the Browns.
10. Buffalo at Miami: After losing to the Jets in Week 13, a winless season is becoming a reality in Miami. The Bills are a banged-up team, but RB Marshawn Lynch should be back a little early from his ankle injury, and that will be a lift. What's interesting is that this is a matchup of rookie quarterbacks -- Trent Edwards of the Bills and John Beck of the Dolphins -- and all of a sudden Edwards is looking like the steal of the draft. The Bills need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive for a Week 15 meeting against the Browns.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.