By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
Note: No “Monday Mean QB” this week, look out for a special Bears column Friday after the Thanksgiving game along with another “3 and Out”
Be they motivated opponents or critical crossroads, the NFL keeps setting them up and the Chicago Bears keep knocking them down.
With a winning record and a division rival coming into town, the NFL saw a chance a couple weeks ago to include the Bears again in their showcase game of the week on Sunday night (maybe some appeal lied in showing Kirk Cousins too, but we doubt it) — with that decision came the possibility for more scrutiny of the rising New Monsters than ever before. In a pure narrative sense this was not only the first Sunday Night Football game played in Chicago since 2012, it was by far the first game of real importance the Bears played since the end of 2013.
In what resulted, a 25-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, the Bears solidified themselves as the pacemakers in the NFC North, now holding a game and a half lead in the division, while also being squarely in the NFC playoff picture as the No. 3 seed currently.
Like many of the Bears games this year Sunday night’s featured both highs and lows, but it was like those others a game where Chicago controlled the momentum of the game for the most part. It seems forever ago now that the Bears were the worst roster in the North division, but after this statement win it is clear they are as talented as anyone, even so talented as to not play their very best but still manage to out-do a Minnesota team that came into this game knowing how important it is.
Now 2-0 in its November divisional gauntlet, the Bears can break off a clean sweep in the early game Thanksgiving Day at the Lions in a mere matter of hours. More on that at the bottom of this post.
You can say that the Bears have fulfilled a good November with one lone game to go before we enter the final month of 2018. The Bears are beginning to change their initial ascension into an all-out separation from most of the league with their current four-game win streak, but there’s still more feasting to do.
As we take a break from taking it all in, lets take a look at a few more takeaways from last night’s victory.
Too Legit, Too Legit To Quit
Defensively is where the Bears deserve the most praise from last night’s win. That side of the ball has been more dominant in games and their raw numbers were effected by allowing two fourth quarter touchdowns but all the game-impacting plays were made by Chicago in a dual of two of the best defensive units in the NFL.
When predictions for this game came out through the week the average advance score saw a game played in the low to mid 20s due to scouting takeways of two evenly matched teams with explosive offenses and defenses. The Vikings have a lot of firepower and though their offensive line is their worst position group, quarterback Cousins has been great this season with the highest passer rating under pressure in the league.
The Bears brought plenty of pressure in this game, mainly lead by edge rusher Khalil Mack and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, so much so that the normally cool Cousins didn’t make good this this time under pressure. Minnesota for most of this game was obviously affected by an overall unit where the defensive line is complemented by a secondary that is rock solid in coverage and opportunistic in getting takeaways.
The biggest play for the Bears in the second half was safety Eddie Jackson picking off Cousins and taking it in for a pick-six at a time when the Bears were getting pretty desperate for scoring. Jackson’s highlight pushed the score to 22-6 in Chicago’s favor after a successful two point conversion and that would be enough for the victory, just enough after the Vikings outscored the Bears 14-3 for the rest of the game.
There had been questions about the legitimacy of this defense around the time when Mack got injured, those questions have been answered with multiple weeks of great defense and arguably the best results in the league. This game as much as any this season proved that Chicago has a legitimate Super Bowl-caliber defense.
Offense Offends No More
Flipping to the other side of the ball for the Bears, the offense didn’t have the kind of magic we saw in games against Detroit and Tampa. A strong start was put together in the first half of but every bit of help from the defense was needed to secure the victory in the second half after an extended dry spell.
It hasn’t been a new thing for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the rest of the offense to put together one great week followed by a let down, such inconsistency occurs as the growing pains of a young quarterback and a first-year offense. The difference in this “let down,” if it can even be called one, is that the offense is still trending up in light of it.
We praised the Bears defense but the Vikings have a great defensive unit themselves, boasting a ferocious defensive line and a talented secondary of their own. Trubisky made a couple bad throws that resulted in interceptions with a third throw that likely should have been intercepted but that was what his mistakes were limited to. What has to stand out from Trubisky’s performance Sunday night was how he made great plays with his legs, some nice downfield throws and, most importantly, converted on big third downs late in the fourth quarter.
Watching Trubisky command the line of scrimmage is a night and day difference to the early parts of the season. The receivers did a good job making plays when the ball was thrown their way and in the first half there was a Jordan Howard sighting as the running back ran aggressively downhill. The offense has a ways to go, it still can come close to playing a role in giving a game up to a talented team like Minnesota, but they are clearly progressing.
A fair grade for yesterday’s game would be an incomplete — its hard to blanket that unit with either a stamp of approval or a stamp of dismissal coming from this contest. One thing fans can take away from this week is that the Bears’ offense won’t offend #Bearsnation’s football sensibilities anymore, not even with the brightest of lights on them.
A Kick in the Pants
A sudden concern heading into the match-up with the Vikings (as well as the rest of the season) surfaced during the Detroit game — whether or not kicker Cody Parkey can be a reliable element of the team’s scoring. After four doinks off the upright against the Lions, the team and fanbase were shook so much that Parkey spent part of the week kicking at Soldier Field which started off a sort of “kick gate,” that was breathlessly covered by the Chicago media on the ground and in the skies.
All the panic of this week faded away as Parkey hit all three of his field goals against the Vikings, including a 48-yarder which helped seal the victory for the Bears in the fourth quarter. Interestingly, Coach Matt Nagy decided against kicking extra points and went for two on every touchdown score. It seemed like his confidence in Parkey was limited at the start of the game, and if it was, Parkey at least began to rebuild that trust with his bounce back performance.
The Bears have become a threat in the NFC and making sure they have a reliable kicker is a must as the importance of every game here on will be ramped up. Monitoring Parkey will be a community-wide effort but at least for one night he was able to silence the critics and make a big-time kick.
On the Horizon (Thanksgiving Preview)
The Bears now have less than 72 hours before kickoff against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. Most of the success for for Nagy and his staff will be tied to how they retain a certain level of health and preparedness to take on the Lions after such a dramatic recent game.
Good news is the Bears played this Detroit team just over a week ago and will be able to use some if not most most of their game planning from that game again. The Lions are a different team on Thanksgiving with a distinct home field advantage — they will come out with extra energy to redeem themselves against their loss to the Bears.
In the face of that energy, the defense has to do exactly what they did against the Vikings and bring pressure with their front while playing lock down, opportunistic coverage in the secondary. The offense played okay against the Vikings but turned the ball over way too much. Trubisky had his best overall game this season against the Lions using his arm and legs to slice and dice Matt Patricia’s defense.
Without the defensive line the Vikings have, Detroit will be less of a threat to stifle the Bears run attack as Chicago’s offensive line has played pretty well last night and in the weeks since losing Kyle Long. Therefore, it shouldn’t be much to expect the Bears offensive line to protect Trubisky and allow space for Howard and Tarik Cohen to make plays on the fast track at Ford Field.
Overall, the Bears will be a favorite again on the holiday morning and there’s plenty of reason why. Putting together a similar effort than they did against the Vikings should be enough for the Bears to finish November with an 8-3 record and in full control of their playoff destiny.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR