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Bears unable to dig out of early hole in loss to Vikings

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(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) is sacked by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) during the second quarter at Mall of America Field on Sunday, December 9, 2012, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

(MCT) — MINNEAPOLIS — Lovie Smith stood in the middle of the cramped visitors locker room Sunday afternoon with his hands on his hips waiting for the rest of his team to assemble.

A week after melting down in the final minutes and overtime against the Seahawks, the Bears were run over at the start of the game and Smith had the look of a coach that had been simmering for three-plus hours. Why not?

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson busted his defense for a 51-yard run on the first play of the game en route to 154 on the day, and the Bears never recovered in a 21-14 loss. It was the team’s sixth straight December defeat dating back to last year and one that deals a blow to once bright playoff prospects.

The Bears (8-5) have lost four of their last five games and will have to sift through new injuries before preparing to play the Packers, who have won five straight in the series. Quarterback Jay Cutler was knocked out of Sunday’s game late in the fourth quarter with a neck injury, although it’s not believed to be serious.

Critics will say the Bears remain a product of an easy first-half schedule and everyone will agree Smith’s bunch isn’t going to beat the Packers or any potential NFC playoff team if it has the kind of lapses that have plagued them in the last two losses. After the opening drive, which Peterson capped with a 1-yard touchdown run, the league’s leading rusher had just 85 yards on 26 carries. But the damage had been done, and when Cutler was intercepted by Josh Robinson on the ensuing possession to set up another 1-yard Peterson touchdown, the Bears were in a 14-0 hole they wouldn’t escape.

If Smith was furious afterward, he was already thinking ahead when it came time to field questions.

“We knew it was going to be a race to the finish,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to have. The window of opportunity is a lot smaller, but we still control what happens with us.”

What has to be bothersome for Smith is his defense couldn’t prevail despite an anemic effort from the Vikings’ Christian Ponder, as bad a starting quarterback as there is in the league. But Ponder managed to pull off an elaborate engagement proposal to his girlfriend during the week with Christmas lights and then beat the once-vaunted Bears defense despite completing only 11 of 17 passes for 91 yards. The Bears outgained the Vikings 438-248 in total yards.

Peterson, who has 1,600 yards for the season, had his big game with the Bears missing middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and cornerback Tim Jennings.

“(Peterson) is one of the top backs in the league,” said Jennings’ replacement, Kelvin Hayden. “We can’t shy away from that. He came out playing fast, playing hard. It looks like we weren’t ready for it, but we were. We were ready. It was the first drive. So much football was played after that. I thought we did a pretty good job after that.”

The Bears trailed 14-7 at halftime after Cutler’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery, but the Vikings went back up by two scores in the third quarter when safety Harrison Smith intercepted a pass that sailed high over Brandon Marshall and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown.

Cutler was injured on a crunching blow to the head from Everson Griffen as Jared Allen was pulling him down. He remained in the game to make nine more throws, the last two of which were dropped by Devin Hester and Marshall, turning the ball over on downs with 4:27 to play when his neck stiffened up. Hester’s drop would have gone for a touchdown, and Marshall, who made 10 catches for 160 yards, would have moved the chains on fourth down.

“There were a lot of problems,” said Cutler, who has failed to finish two of the last five games. “I didn’t play well.”

In relief, Jason Campbell fired a 16-yard touchdown to Marshall with 1:48 to play, but the onside kick failed and the Bears’ six-game winning streak in the series ended.

“As a team we have to go back to practice, work hard, be angry and come back and take it out on Green Bay,” free safety Chris Conte said.

If they don’t get things righted soon, they will quickly find themselves in a fight for the final wild-card spot with the Vikings, Redskins and Cowboys all just one game back at 7-6.

“We don’t have to do anything heroic or superhuman to beat Green Bay,” defensive end Julius Peppers said. “We just have to execute and play well from the start.”

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