Sunday December 18th, 2011

Red Bryant's third-quarter interception return for a touchdown gave the Seahawks a 21-14 lead that they wouldn't relent. (AP)

A month ago, if you had predicted that the Seahawks would head into the season's final two weeks in better playoff position than the Bears, you might have earned a one-way ticket to the nuthouse.

But that's where we're at following Seattle's 38-14 runaway victory in Chicago Sunday (box | recap). Remarkably, the Seahawks, who were once 2-6, are now right in the thick of the postseason race at 7-7. The Bears, meanwhile, despite holding a matching 7-7 record, are in meltdown mode thanks to four straight losses.

Of course, no one could have guessed in early November that Chicago would lose its starting QB, Jay Cutler, and its franchise running back, Matt Forte.

Without that duo the wheels have fallen off quickly. Chicago lost to three straight AFC West foes -- Oakland, Kansas City and Denver -- before laying an egg in the second half against Seattle.

Things didn't look so bad for Chicago in the first two quarters Sunday. A defensive touchdown and impressive Hanie-to-Kahlil Bell touchdown pass had the Bears up 14-7 at halftime, and looking like they might stem the tide and stay in the thick of the playoff hunt for one more week.

The second half was a nightmare, though. Seattle came out and tied the game at 14, needing just 1:58 to go 80 yards for a score. Hanie then threw the first of two second-half pick-6s, and the Seahawks never looked back. Their second interception return for a TD made it 38-14 -- giving the Seahawks 31 unanswered points in the final two quarters, on the road, against a desperate Chicago team.

As if that wasn't bad enough for the Bears, they pulled Hanie late, only to see Josh McCown come in and promptly throw an interception of his own.

Cutler rarely gets as much credit as he deserves, but maybe this sudden and shocking Chicago collapse will do it. Since he's gone out of the lineup with a broken thumb, the Bears have looked like the Peyton Manning-less Colts -- unable to sustain drives, more apt to turn it over than score a touchdown.

Even the Bears' normally stingy defense has felt the ramifications, though it had little chance Sunday as Hanie and company kept handing possession over to Seattle.

And because of all that, we must now turn our attention to the surging Seahawks.

Once left for dead this season, Seattle has won five of six and three in a row to get back to the .500 mark. A Week 16 home game with San Francisco looms, followed by a trip to Arizona, another late-season darkhorse climbing the charts. Should Seattle win both of those games and the Lions slip to 9-7 or worse, it would be Pete Carroll's upstart team headed to the postseason.

Try to wrap your mind around that possibility for a minute.

Seattle appeared headed for a total roster overhaul earlier this season. The Seahawks lost 24-0 to Pittsburgh, then dropped a filthy 6-3 decision to Cleveland about a month later. The offense struggled to generate anything, and the defense failed to carry the load on its own.

Everything changed in Week 10, when Seattle stunned Baltimore, 22-17. At the time just about everyone chalked that result up to the Ravens' lack of focus. Little did we know it was the start of Seattle's rise.

It's been a steady formula for the Seahawks: Plenty of Marshawn Lynch, tons of defense and just enough through the air to keep defenses honest.

Lynch had two touchdowns Sunday (despite rushing for just 42 yards on 20 carries); Tarvaris Jackson threw for 227 yards and a TD; and the Seattle defense forced four sacks, racked up five turnovers and scored twice. There's nothing fancy or groundbreaking going on here. Seattle is lining up and simply beating its opponents head-to-head.

In other words, the Seahawks are doing exactly what Chicago did for its first 10 games. Despite losses to New Orleans, Green Bay and Detroit, the Bears started to take on the look of a contender, with Cutler picking defenses apart and Forte dominating.

But Cutler's injury changed all that, and Forte's loss a few weeks later sealed Chicago's fate, even if we wouldn't know it for sure until this week.

The Bears no longer have what it takes to compete in the NFC wild-card race, especially not against a team playing with the confidence and attitude Seattle has right now. One month ago, the Bears had their sights set on a playoff run, as the Seahawks appeared destined for a three- or four-win season. It's funny how quickly things can change in the NFL -- and few situations have changed as dynamically as the ones in Seattle and Chicago.

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