The Bears could have their Christmas stockings stuffed with coal next Saturday.
And then again, they might receive their treasured playoff berth gift-wrapped when the NFC postseason invitations are handed out. If the Bears defeat the AFC East co-leading New England Patriots on Christmas Eve, they will make the playoffs as either the NFC Central champion or a wild card.
That was the reality after Sunday's 27-13 victory over the Los Angeles Rams (4-11) at Soldier Field. The triumph improved the Bears' record to 9-6, tying them for the Central lead with Minnesota and Detroit.
The Bears can win the NFC Central if they beat New England while Detroit loses to Miami and Minnesota falls to San Francisco.
If they lose to the Patriots, they will need one of four games to go their way: Green Bay would have to lose or tie at Tampa Bay, the Giants would have to beat Dallas, Arizona would have to lose or tie at Atlanta or the Vikings would have to win or tie the 49ers. All would be considered upsets.
"Just win, baby," should be the refrain of Bears coach Dave Wannstedt this week.
"We don't go to Platteville for 5 1/2 weeks just to say we have the longest training camp in the NFL," said Wannstedt. "It starts there because we are trying to be as good as we can be. And today we had an opportunity to get in the hunt again, and our guys responded."
If all four NFC Central contenders win, they'll all be in the playoffs, with the Vikings as division champs.
The Bears kept both hands on the steering wheel and their eyes on the road while running over the Rams.
"We didn't do anything different today than what we've done when we won the other eight games," said Wannstedt. "We got a couple of turnovers and we did not turn the ball over. We ran the ball well."
Fullback Raymont Harris led the Bears' 163-yard rushing offense with 92 yards on 23 carries and his first NFL touchdown.
Meanwhile, the Bears held Jerome Bettis to seven yards rushing on eight carries and the entire Rams offense to 37 yards on the ground.
The Rams took a 7-0 lead after an 11-play, 66-yard opening drive that ended with a 1-yard run by quarterback Chris Chandler.
"It really surprised us when they came out and threw the ball on the first series," said Wannstedt. "We just felt if we had to do one thing, particularly after last week (when the Bears gave up 257 rushing yards to Green Bay), it was to stop Jerome Bettis."
Kevin Butler, who finished the day with two field goals and three extra points to increase his career total to 999 points, booted a 41-yarder to pull the Bears to within 7-3 late in the first quarter.
The Rams were marching toward a possible 14-3 lead early in the second quarter, but on a fourth-and-1 at the 4, they settled for an 18-yard field goal by Tony Zendejas.
The Bears tied the game at 10 on a 3-yard TD pass from Steve Walsh to tight end Keith Jennings.
"The offense was struggling a little bit, and I was fortunate enough to get open, and Steve made a heck of a throw," said Jennings. "I think I'm the third read on that play. The idea was for me to sell the run and get open any way I can. I couldn't drop that one. He hit me right in the numbers."
A nine-play, 66-yard drive culminated in a 2-yard TD run by Harris as the Bears took a 17-10 advantage. Zendejas had a 42-yard field-goal attempt blocked by Alonzo Spellman as the half ended.
"With the block or without the block, this team knew what it had to do," said Spellman. "This ballgame meant everything to us."
A key play in the game occurred in the third period when Chris Gardocki's punt was returned by Todd Kinchen. The ball was stripped by Jay Leeuwenburg and recovered by Robert Green at the Rams' 33.
That turnover resulted in a 30-yard Butler field goal and a more comfortable 20-10 Bears lead.
The Rams reached the Chicago 8 in the final quarter, but Chris Miller's third-down pass to Troy Dayton in the end zone was ruled a trap and Los Angeles settled for a 21-yard field goal by Zendejas with 9:10 left that made it 20-13.
The Bears, who improved to 5-2 at home, sewed up the victory with a 1-yard TD run by Lewis Tillman with 3:36 remaining.
"It goes back to the old saying: `You have to take care of your own yard. You can't have anybody else come in and do your work for you,' " said Jennings. "We're professional athletes and that's what we are supposed to do-handle our own business."
bears 27, rams 13