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As the football skittered along the turf deep in the Viking backfield for the second time in two second-half possessions Sunday, the Bears' playoff hopes bounced and tumbled right along with it. Shortly after Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson had allowed a Falcon lineman to punch the ball away from him - a fumble that didn't stop until it was recovered by Atlanta about 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage - a shotgun snap zipped past the quarterback on its way to the same general vicinity. Jackson recovered that one but the Vikings never quite recovered from a wacky spate of fumbles (seven in all, four of which were lost) that enabled a Falcon team that didn't play particularly well to pull out a 24-17 victory. So now all the Bears have to do to make the playoffs is knock off the Packers on frozen tundra at home, and the Texans on the road next week . . . and the Vikings have to lose at home to the New York Giants. Or the Bears could win the wild card by winning both games and the Eagles beat the Cowboys . . . and Tampa Bay loses to Oakland. And that's about enough of that, at least until the Bears accomplish, I don't know, maybe half their side of the bargain.

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Thought I'd include a few NBA notes in the column today considering neither local paper covers the NBA anymore. Heck, the Tribune only covers the Bulls part-time these days. The gamer on the Bulls-Celtics clash Friday night - the lead story in the section - was written by a Boston Globe staff writer. Maybe the Trib should just publish the Globe sports section in full. OK, I take that back. I wouldn't want to have missed Sunday's Rick Morrissey column, his second on North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough in the last month. Morrissey really has his finger on the pulse of the Chicago sports fan.

Anyway . . . the notes. Former Bull Jamal Crawford put up a cool 50 for the Golden State Warriors on Saturday as Oakland's finest knocked off the Charlotte Bobcats 110-103. Crawford arrived from the Knicks via trade a couple weeks ago and has shown his usual flashes of offensive brilliance. But that hasn't been enough to right the Golden State ship. Saturday's win ended a five-game losing streak and the Warriors (8-20) almost certainly won't be contending for the playoffs this time around. In other news, Chicago native Dwyane Wade continued his stellar bounce-back season for the Heat by tossing in 42 as Miami squeaked past New Jersey. The Heat's overall mark now stand at 14-12, the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference.

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Meanwhile, how 'bout those Blackhawks? A Saturday evening holiday party took precedence over the mini-road trip-capping 3-1 win over Vancouver, but earlier-in-the-week victories against the totally over-matched Edmonton Oilers and the much tougher Calgary Flames were must-see hockey. The Hawks, whose 18 wins are tied for second-most in the Western Conference and who have won seven in a row for the first time in eons, now take a break until after Christmas. Shortly thereafter is the gimmick game at Wrigley (perhaps you've heard the Hawks' will be playing at the Friendly Confines Jan. 1?). The sooner that's over with the better.

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I was sure the Bulls would have embarked on a significant losing streak by now (reason No. 1,000,000 I don't bet on sports). If they keep pulling out wins when they need them to hover near .500 despite a severely imbalanced roster, I might just begin to conclude that this Vinny Del Negro character has a future in coaching. And to think I had such a good time mocking the hire when it happened earlier this year. There's still plenty of time for the local NBA campaign to go south of course. But wins like the win over Utah Saturday - accomplished despite primary low-post contributor Drew Gooden's absence due to injury - are building the case for at least a tiny bit of Bulls-related optimism. Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon played great again. Luol Deng did not.

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Jim Coffman brings you the city's best weekend sports roundup every Monday because he loves you. You can write to him personally! Please include a real name if you would like your comments to be considered for publication.

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