By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
This Sunday marks the final day of the 2018 regular season in the NFL and what a regular season it has been across the league, but particularly for the Chicago Bears who have finally made themselves among the best stories in the league again.
Back before Week 1, when everyone was still a contender, you still would have had a hard time finding many fans who would have guessed that the Bears could be in the current position they are in — sitting on 11 wins with a chance to get to 12 as well as a possibility for a first round bye in the playoffs. At worst, the Bears will host one playoff game against one of three teams — the Seahawks, the Eagles or this week’s opponent, the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings sit in the final wildcard spot in the NFC and control their destiny, if they win against the Bears then they are in and both teams would play again in a week. If the Bears win then they likely eliminate the Vikings from the Vikings and leave Philadelphia and Seattle as likely opponents for Wildcard Weekend. It will be interesting to see how the Bears handle this game against the Vikings.
In all likelihood the Bears will not get a first round bye because the the other result they are relying on — the Rams losing at home to the 49ers — isn’t likely. This is one final chance for the Bears to get ready for the playoffs in a hostile environment, though, and one more chance to stick it to a divisional opponent who won’t be able to match their success this season.
Here are the goals for a successful day on Sunday.
Four Quarter Consistency — The Bears didn’t play a great game against the 49ers last week and didn’t play well before that in their previous road game against the Giants.
Though clearly the better team in each occasion, the Bears still struggled to dominate like they’ve mostly done at home. Reasoning for Chicago’s struggles comes down to a lack of execution and consistency.
This matchup with the Vikings is one last opportunity for the Bears to get themselves right on the road before the playoffs. Winning on the road takes experience since statistically it is very difficult to win on the road in the NFL. The Norseman-costumed fans will be ready and going crazy for the home team knowing a playoff berth is on the line, this will give quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the offense a difficult environment to communicate in what should easily the toughest venue the Bears have played in so far.
The Bears have to find a way to be more consistent and give a four-quarter effort, especially on offense. Too many times on the road we have seen the Bears put together one good half and one bad half or in the case of last week’s game at San Francisco, compile a good amount of yards while mostly failing to convert those yards into points in the Red Zone.
Consistent execution is so important in big games, the goal this week is to put together two good halves on the road with more drives resulting in points than not.
Healthy State of Mind — The Bears have been put into a somewhat awkward position for Sunday because a win would potentially eliminate the Vikings and there is still a chance to get the second seed if the Rams lose.
The odds of the Bears getting the second seed are pretty low, both the Rams and Bears will play during the same time slot which means the Bears can monitor the Rams game. If that game were to clearly start going the Rams way then coach Nagy can start taking players out to preserve them for the playoffs. There is the question if the Bears should just outright win the game regardless in order to play a different team than the Vikings on Wildcard Weekend.
People can make arguments either way saying the Eagles would be a better first round opponent, but keep this in mind. The Bears play great at home and the opponent they face will be tough no matter what, the focus should be leaving Minnesota as healthy as possible. Since the odds are so low that the Bears can improve their seeding, the next most important thing is having your full compliment of players.
Not a group that’s lacking in confidence, the Bears feel they can beat anyone at home, and they will be the favorite to win that first round game no matter who the opponent is. The goal is to be smart, lean more towards caution and have your most important players available for next week.
Set the Tone — If it happens to work out that the Vikings win the game whether its because the Bears rest players or not, it will mean a third game between the two teams.
Momentum is a weird thing in sports and even life. It seems like all the breaks are going your way until all of a sudden they don’t and might even turn against you. The Vikings are a desperate team and the last thing you want to give a desperate team is confidence. It feels like the worst outcome for the Bears, besides major injuries, would be losing badly in a blowout.
The Bears have been competitive in every game this year and haven’t lost by more than seven points, its been impressive that such a young team has not been blown out. his speaks to the team being consistently prepared, play hard and have a willingness to keep getting up off the mat. The goal for the Bears this week is to set a tone in their play and attitude. That way even if the Vikings win and if there is a rematch in the first round of the playoffs, they will know how hard it will be to beat the Bears at Soldier Field.
Long Term Impact — It looks like guard Kyle Long will be making his return to the Bears soon and perhaps on Sunday. When Long went down in Week 8 against the Jets, a sort of panic came over Bears fans.
Losing Long looked like a potential disaster to what was an already inconsistent unit at the time. The Bears signed journeyman guard Bryan Witzmann, who previously was with Nagy’s ex team, the Chiefs, and the entire group started playing better. Long was playing the best out of anyone on the offensive line before he went down, his return would only make the line better which already has two Pro Bowl alternates.
What Long especially brings is raw power in a run blocker that can dominate a lot of defensive lineman in this league. It opens the playbook back up for Nagy because they didn’t have a dominate run blocker on the interior once Long was lost. The return of Long to the lineup could be a huge boost just before the playoffs get started.
If Long plays Sunday then he couldn’t have picked a better time because they will want his help against this Vikings defensive line, which counts itself among the best in football with four stout players at their starting positions.
Long has yet to show up on the injury report he has been practicing with the team, so signs are pointing up for his impending return.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR