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Bears, 49ers trying to keep playoff hopes alive

The Bears and 49ers enter Thursday night's NFL Network game in San Francisco among a group of NFL teams playing for hope.

Both started the season full of it; San Francisco showing signs of an energized upstart, Chicago looking quite dangerous with Jay Cutler slingin' the ball around the field.

Now, their seasons hinge on it.

While there is a half a schedule left to play and one of these teams could get on the type of roll to propel them into the playoffs with unstoppable inertia, a loss, especially for Chicago, could prove crushing. Not so much because the Bears (4-4) would fall a game below mediocrity, but because NFC North-leading Minnesota (7-1) already holds a three-game lead over Chicago (and Green Bay).

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And the wild-card picture isn't looking favorable, either.

San Francisco (3-5) has a little bit more wiggle room because NFC West-leader Arizona is 5-3 and unpredictably inconsistent, leaving the division wide open for the taking. That said, the 49ers have lost four straight and a fifth loss could spark not only another quarterback change but other controversies that have the potential to further unsettle an already wobbly team.

Chicago and San Francisco are in a lot better shape than a handful of other teams who've all but been eliminated from postseason play because of their poor starts and other teams' dominant first halves. After nine weeks, there are eight teams with two wins or fewer, including five with just a single victory. Conversely, there are eight teams with at least six wins, two still undefeated.

That leaves half of the NFL teams in the middle of a growing gulf between the haves and have-nots.

Cleveland, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Washington, Oakland, Kansas City, Buffalo, Detroit and Tennessee are postseason toast, with only the Titans seemingly poised to make any type of interesting push. The NFC South, AFC South, AFC East and NFC North seem all but locked up by New Orleans, Indianapolis, New England and Minnesota, respectively.

It's a little too soon to go ahead and schedule a bye for each of those teams in the first round of the playoffs. A flashback to the AFC West last season is proof that a red-hot team (San Diego) and one that suffers unexpected paralysis (Denver) can provide a sudden turnabout.

In all likelihood, some unsuspecting team off to a slower-than-expected start (Baltimore, Green Bay, Carolina, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, New York Jets, Miami), or one that is playing fairly well, just not well enough (Houston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, New York Giants) is going to get hot and threaten a division leader.

Do we really think Indianapolis and New Orleans will go unbeaten or that Minnesota and New England won't lose again? At the same time, have we seen any reason any of these second- and third-tier teams will somehow establish enough consistency to make a run? Maybe the Giants, Houston, Baltimore and Atlanta. Green Bay and Chicago seem to be getting worse but they have most of the parts to rally if they can regain their mojo. Seattle is banged up and Jacksonville is very inconsistent.

When it comes to wild-card spots, the teams playing in tighter division races seem to have the more favorable options to get into the playoffs. Don't you think whoever finishes second in the AFC West (Denver, San Diego) and the AFC North (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore) will get into the playoffs ahead of teams like Houston, the Jets, Jacksonville or Miami?

In the NFC, New Orleans and Minnesota are well on their way to locking up the South and North divisions. If either or both lose their quarterbacks then they're in trouble, but otherwise, each is deep enough in talent to survive some nicks, both are physical and solid in every aspect, and each can run the ball.

Arizona has the most favorable schedule of the teams in the West and it is the only one I can see going on a prolonged winning streak. In the East, every team has a murderer's row schedule, but Dallas seems the healthiest and the deepest. The Cowboys' December-January schedule is rugged and Dallas' recent late-season history isn't pretty, but the Eagles and Giants have equally tough, if not tougher, opponents down the stretch.

While Atlanta's remaining schedule is hardly a cakewalk, three of its next five games are at home, where the Falcons are all but invincible, and their final three games are against the Jets, Bills and Bucs. They have to be considered the front-runner one of the NFC's two wild cards. I like the Eagles to take the other. The Giants could leapfrog one of those two but they need to get things turned around immediately.

Green Bay and Chicago aren't getting the play out of their offensive lines or defense to make a push, and they both have pretty tough schedules (the Bears could get into contention because they play Minnesota twice, but that could also prove to be the final shovel of dirt on their season).

In the AFC, the Colts should win the South but they can't relax because the Texans have a light second-half schedule. Realistically, though, Houston will be playing for a wild-card berth. I've tabbed the Patriots in the East because the Dolphins, Jets and Bills have quarterback issues that will make it difficult for them to pass a team that seems to be catching its stride.

The Nov. 22 game between San Diego and Denver could determine who wins the West. Denver should snap out of its funk against Washington this week, but that is no gimme. Should the Broncos get back on track this week and then beat the Chargers at home, then Denver will be in the driver's seat since it would have swept San Diego. If the Chargers defeat the Eagles on Sunday and put it on Denver, the pendulum will have swung in San Diego's favor, especially when you consider that four of the team's final six games are against Kansas City, Cleveland, Tennessee and Washington.

I really like the surging Steelers in the North. I know the Bengals swept Baltimore, but I don't think they can do the same to Pittsburgh. We'll find out on Sunday when they travel to Pittsburgh. Win there and my mind is changed. Working in the Steelers' favor: They've already played the guts of their schedule. Other than the Bengals, not one team remaining on the docket currently has a winning record.

Not to fret, Cincy. The other wild card has your name on it.

L.J. could be waiting a while

Over the past few weeks I've spoken to a handful of general managers and personnel men who've spoken to some of their counterparts regarding recently released Chiefs running back Larry Johnson. The overwhelming sentiment comes back to a statement one GM from a likely playoff team offered me this week: "We don't want to introduce him into our locker room."

Johnson's rep isn't doing him any favors but neither is his declining production, a dip some observers aren't solely blaming on the Chiefs' offensive line. A GM told me teams are willing to put up with players with character issues as long as those players produce. But the second things start declining, they are front and center to be shipped out -- and not signed by other teams.

With only half the season left, Johnson likely would be on great behavior and on a mission to prove himself, like Cedric Benson or DeAngelo Hall did last year, so teams in need of help at running back might not be too concerned with his character blemishes. I think Johnson will get another shot this season, but there is no certainty about that. If he doesn't get a few look-sees now, he might be too radioactive to get back in the league.

Dome-field advantage

Despite two straight games where they had to struggle to win, the Saints are on a mission, and that mission could be to go unbeaten. Though players aren't talking about making a Patriots-type run, they are already talking about home-field advantage in the playoffs. Yep. Already.

Safety Darren Sharper told me the Saints want the playoffs to come through the Big Easy because, as someone who's played for the Vikings and Packers, opponents don't like dealing with the crowd noise or the Saints' boisterous fans. Nothing like having 70,000 fans echoing chants of "Who Dat?" to make you uneasy.

Props, of sorts, for Rodgers

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is gaining more respect around the NFL, not necessarily because of the strong season he's having throwing the ball, but for his toughness.

"That guy is the real deal," an NFC defensive player told me. "I can't believe he's still doing the things he's doing because he is taking a beating."

Rodgers has been sacked an NFL-high 37 times in eight games. He's on pace to tie David Carr (74 in 2002) for the NFL record for most times being sacked in a single season. Rodgers is to blame for his share of those because he hangs on to the ball a lot longer than he should at times. However, what's going on with his protection is a much bigger issue, and two sources I spoke with this week who have broken down the Packers' issues said it doesn't appear to be scheme-related.

"Guys are just getting beat," one of the sources from an opposing team said.

Players simply are losing matchups up front and in the backfield -- especially when it comes to slowing down edge rushers like Minnesota's Jared Allen, who has 7.5 sacks in two games against Green Bay this season. That could be very problematic this week against the Dallas Cowboys, who boast surging Pro Bowl pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, who might be faster and shiftier than any edge rusher Green Bay has faced.

Why Dallas' defense is surging

The Cowboys' push to the top of the NFC, due to a four-game winning streak, rests heavily on the play of the defense. What's picked up, especially in the past three weeks?

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"Wade (Phillips) is not going to change anything with the scheme because it works," linebacker Keith Brooking said, referring to his head coach and defensive mastermind. "It wasn't that we weren't getting to the quarterback early in the season either. We were just a split second late. Now we're getting there and sack numbers are going up. We're not doing anything differently with the scheme."

Dallas has registered 10 sacks the past three games against Atlanta, Seattle and Philadelphia. It's also forced seven turnovers. Brooking said it's no coincidence things got back on track following safety Gerald Sensabaugh's return to the starting lineup after missing a game with a broken hand.

Sensabaugh is reliable on the back end and he brings a nice run-support presence, Brooking said.

"I've been able to help eliminate the deep ball," said Sensabaugh, who previously played with Jacksonville and signed a one-year deal with Dallas this offseason. "In our defense, the safety is isolated on tight ends and slot receivers and I've been doing pretty well with that. We're improving because guys are doing their own jobs and not worrying about everybody else's job. The trust is there now and that's why we're playing better."

Week 10 picks

Wyche's winners:49ers over Bears; Falcons over Panthers; Dolphins over Bucs; Vikings defeat Lions; Jaguars over the Jets; Steelers over the Bengals; Saints crush the Rams; Titans beat Bills; Broncos over the Redskins; Chiefs beat the Raiders; Cardinals defeat Seattle; Packers win at home over Dallas; Chargers beat the Eagles, Ravens emerge over Cleveland.

Upset of the week:Patriots over Colts.

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