By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The Chicago Bears notched a ticket into the big dance, the playoffs, after clinching the NFC North with a 24-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers Sunday afternoon, and its becoming clear the Bears aren’t scared to dance with anyone in the NFC.
It wasn’t the best game the Bears have had all season, as somewhat expected given how much of a chore it usually is to dismiss the Packers, but the good here outweighed any mistakes or shortcoming the offense or defense exhibited.
The entire team looked in sync by complimenting each other and in all reality, had the Bears been sharper, this game probably would have been a blowout. The Packers put up a fight and played hard but except for the connections between quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Davante Adams the team looked pretty blah. Once the game was officially over, it really began to settle in that officially the Bears would finish first in the NFC North. What a turnaround it has been going from worst to first in the span of just one year.
The Bears will celebrate and so will fans, some may be hinging how hard they celebrate on the details of an official injury update of safety Eddie Jackson who twisted his ankle on a game deciding interception return. Now it will be interesting to see what the Bears do with the last two weeks of the season after clinching a playoff spot.
Chicago’s final regular season home game was one to remember and here’s hoping the pretty-much-assured home game in the playoffs will go just as well. In the meantime, here are some observations from the Bears’ win.
A Winning Formula
The Bears showed a lot to their fans on Sunday, rising to a specific moment where team pride was needed to motivate the team above all, but the Bears also let observers in Chicago and beyond more into their winning formula, playing as complete a game as the team has played this year with all three units contributing to the effort.
On special teams, the Bears messed up a fake punt trying to trick the Packers, but the problem with the play was the call itself, not the special teams. Besides that one play, the special teams covered well, executed kicks/punts and sprung Tarik Cohen on a long punt return late in the game.
Defensively, the Bears stayed true to themselves by taking the ball away and getting after the passer as only they can, sacking Rodgers five times. The Bears didn’t execute quite as well in stopping the run but they helped Pack lead rusher Aaron Jones out the game early and wound up holding the Packers to under a hundred yards.
On offense, head coach Matt Nagy showed great patience with his play calling by committing to the run game while also being aggressive. Nagy made some questionable decisions like the fake punt and in a wildcat set-up deep in Green Bay territory, but he is an aggressive play caller in general, and you have to take the good with the bad with a coach like that. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky played well and managed the offense like a seasoned playoff quarterback.
When the Bears get great performances on defense, the other units just have to be complimentary. Its sort of like how old Bears head coach Lovie Smith would say, you need to win two out of the three phases. When the Bears play great defense, with solid special teams and make a commitment to the run game while not turning the ball over, they are awfully hard to beat.
The Bears can be explosive on offense as well, we haven’t seen it consistently, but imagine if the play from the offense hits another level in the playoffs. Against the Packers the Bears showed a winning formula for the playoffs and hopefully they will be able to execute said formula and raise it to the level of the competition they see once the playoffs start.
Rest vs. Rust
A question developed for the Bears after their playoff clinching win: will the Bears now begin resting players before the playoffs or not? The Bears are in an awkward position with their seeding in the NFC — they sit third which would mean hosting a game in the wildcard round against the number six seed, who currently is the Minnesota Vikings.
On the heels of the Bears for the third seed is the prohibitive NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys but they lost in a 23-0 washing to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, so now the Bears have a two game lead over the Cowboys with two games left. Its appearing as the Bears will finish with the third seed at worst with one more win but they shouldn’t count themselves out of the first or second seed if they win out and get help. The No. 1 seed right now is the New Orleans Saints who finish out with with two games against the Carolina Panthers and a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers remaining on their schedule.
The Bears would need the Saints to lose at least two of their remaining three games to leap frog the Saints based on in conference record. In between these teams are the Los Angeles Rams who close their season out against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.
Due to owning the tiebreaker over L.A. after their 15-6 win over the Rams last week, the Bears would need the Rams to only lose one more game if they are going to leap frog them and still get a very welcome bye for the first week of the postseason.
Nagy has established early in his first season that he’s not against resting players for strategic measures, he sat most the starters in the final two preseason games and sat beat up teammates Khalil Mack and Allen Robinson for two games each during a shaky time for the team. Of course, a preseason mindset or mid-season mindset is different than a playoff-preparing mindset but it will be interesting to see what Nagy prioritizes.
The number one thing you want as a team heading to the playoffs is to be as healthy as possible, after that you want to get as high of a seed as possible. Nagy will likely give his players a mixture of rest and action, his approach could likely reflect his unconventional approach to things, but this is a coach who has proven he has figured out everything his team needs to succeed, he deserves the benefit of any doubt.
The Bears laid to rest a lot of streaks on Sunday including Rodgers’ interception-free streak at 402 pass attempts (which is so impressive by the way), getting their first win at home against the Packers since 2010 and clinching the NFC North for the first time since that same year. Add on their nailing of the final nail in the coffin of the Packers’ playoff hopes this season and you have a good day at work for the Bears.
Suddenly, it feels as a team overall the Bears have surpassed their torturers from the cheese state. It has been a long time since anyone has felt the Bears have had the better team in this rivalry, that’s enough to make Bears fans savor this win, but enjoy this victory because things can change quickly in the NFL.
That said, the Bears actually look set up for a nice run over the next few seasons but nothing is guaranteed and as awful as the Packers have been this season, things can change for them with a new head coach, a good draft and getting your team healthy.
Sound familiar? Because hiring a good new coach, keeping the team healthy and acquiring effective young talent was the blueprint for the Bears success this season. The Packers still have a great quarterback and they have two first round picks in 2019, with the right coach the Packers could be back in a scary way next season. If the Packers do jump back into being a contender next year then these two teams could have a good run of fighting each other for the division year in and year out.
That would certainly be exciting for fans and the NFL, who loves to showcase “the oldest rivalry in the NFL” even when one of the teams are playing horribly. But at this point in time the Bears are the younger, more talented team and the Packers are in the rare position of needing to catch up to the Bears for once.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears for WARR