Tavern talk: Playoff atmosphere tonight

Lovie Smith is 51-41 as Bears head coach, including playoffs, but he’s just 20-20 over the last three seasons since reaching the Super Bowl in 2006. Smith’s 51 wins are the third most in franchise history, trailing only George Halas (324) and Mike Ditka (112). He is 3-0 in his career against the 49ers, and I can’t imagine a bigger game in his career than tonight.

Smith has taken over the defense this season and the Bears have gotten worse from a year ago. Granted, they’re missing some key players, but fundamentally they have not been sound with their defense all season. In two of the last three weeks, they’ve been behind 62-10 at the half. Yes, at the half. The Bears have trailed at halftime in each of their four road games (outscored 68-19 in the first half on the road this season).

I thought quarterback Jay Cutler played on a team with a bad defense last year in Denver, but this year, in spite of the talent level being better in Chicago, the Bears are just as bad. It’s hard to play quarterback when you know if you’re forced to punt, the next time you get the ball, you may be down in the score. The Bears struggle to play any phase of defense well right now. Recently, they haven’t been able to stop the run, they haven’t been able to rush and they haven’t been able to defend the pass. How did this team beat the Steelers?

Even though both teams are not playing great right now, I expect the game to have a playoff atmosphere. The Bears have to find a way to win this game to keep pace with the wild card teams in the NFC. They’ve invested too much into this season to let it all fall by the wayside -- which is why this is a big game for Lovie Smith and his entire coaching staff.

For the Bears to win, they have to stop the 49ers’ running game and make it a one-dimensional contest. When the 49ers have to pass, their liability at left tackle and right guard show up quickly and they struggle to pass protect. The Bears will have their hands full dealing with a very physical 49ers front, but if they protect, they can throw all over the poor 49ers secondary.

The 49ers have to play with the lead and must be able to control the game — it’s their only recipe for winning. Head coach Mike Singletary will have them ready and motivated for a huge first quarter — but as we all know, they will need to sustain that energy for four quarters. The Bears were embarrassed last week, which is why I think they’ll find a way to pull this game out and keep their playoff hopes alive. If they don’t, get ready for all the Mike Shanahan talk about coming home to join his former quarterback.

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