By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The time is drawing near for the Chicago Bears to begin their latest and long-awaited playoff run for a potential Super Bowl title.
In their first postseason since the days following the 2010 season, the Bears won’t have the easiest of paths compared to some teams but they have an opportunity to get off to a good start when they host the Eagles Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field. A confident bunch, the NFC North division champions have played their best football in the second half of the season, winning nine out of their last ten games, the lone loss being an overtime loss in New York with the backup quarterback leading the way.
Meanwhile, this Eagles team comes in with a little momentum built up as well as they have succeeded while being in survival mode the last three weeks. With enough help provided them — mainly from the Bears in Week 17 — to get into the playoffs, the Eagles are being led again by their backup quarterback Nick Foles, who last year went on an unbelievable run in leading Philadelphia to the Super Bowl. From his most recent results it looks like Foles still has some magic left in his game.
Of all the match-ups this NFL Wildcard Weekend the Bears find themselves the largest betting favorite, but don’t expect this game to be easy. The Eagles love the underdog role, it fueled them last year and they’re fine with letting it do so again this year.
The Bears will have to accept their role as favorites this week and that may not be a problem as this team loves playing at home and quite frankly are the more talented team top to bottom.
Here are the four goals for the Bears to win and continue on the Super Bowl path next weekend in the Divisional Round:
Air Raid Attack — Soldier Field has incorporated an air-raid siren at the stadium this year and its sounds should be once again suitable this weekend as another raid is about to hit the lakeside.
Philly would like its air game to drop the most bombs this week but they may need to worry more about containing the home team’s aerial attack.
The Eagles have been decimated by injuries in their secondary. a primary reason why they rank 30th in pass defense. The Bears’ passing offense hasn’t been lights out statistically itself, ranking 21st in pass yards a game.
At quarterback Mitchell Trubisky hasn’t needed to push the ball downfield for the Bears to be successful, which is good as that is one area of his game where he still needs work, in spite of that he has been good at using the short pass game. The Bears also don’t need to push the ball because they are doing great at staying ahead of the chains with conversions of manageable third downs. When the Bears are successful at pushing the ball downfield then they are awfully tough to beat.
A big key for the Eagles defense will be trying to get pressure to help their secondary out. If the Bears pass protection can hold up against the Eagles pass rush, then Trubisky could possibly have a big day. Look back to Week 4 when the Bears played the Buccaneers, Trubisky shredded that defense to the tune of 354 yards with six touchdowns and a passer rating of 154.6 (3.7 points away from a perfect rating).
That Buccaneers secondary was awful and its possible the Eagles secondary is as bad. A goal this week should be to punish the Eagles secondary through the air, if the Bears can accomplish this then they will position themselves well for a victory.
O-line vs. D-line — Any self-professed old school football fan should be excited for this particular match-up. Beyond the storied histories of these two franchises, these two teams have built their rosters with an emphasis on their offensive and defensive lines.
The Eagles dominated last year with their pass rush and how well their offensive line blocked. This year’s Bears look a lot like the Eagles did last year and Chicago’s offensive line will be challenged this week. The Bears offensive line has played some good defensive fronts, such as the Vikings twice in the waning weeks of the season and for the most part they have responded in a good way to those challenges.
With their championship pedigree and established talent this week, protecting the backfield from Philly’s front seven will be more of an explicit challenge. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox sets the tone for the Eagles’ pass rush, he’s complimented with interior lineman Haloti Ngata and outside pass rushers Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham. All four of these guys can cause problems and that’s not counting contributions from backup end Chris Long and the general effectiveness of all the blitzes that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will deploy.
Philly’s pass rush will be truly tough for the Bears offensive line to deflect for the entire game and it might be the Eagles’ only hope to win the game. The goal here is to neutralize the pass rush and leave the Eagles’ defense incapable of impacting the game Sunday in a significant way.
One Unit — The Bears defense has been so great in so many ways all season long. It seems like when they are healthy they can match up well against any type of offense.
Headaches for opposing offenses start in having to gameplan for Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks coming off the edges, two monsters who teams most often have to double team, which opens up lanes for other rushers and tacklers to occupy. The dual rush of Mack and Hicks also predicates how receivers run routes against Chicago’s secondary, in most cases it causes opposing offenses to run quick and short routes that even if they are completed do less damage yard-wise.
It really is hard to find to find a weakness on an defense as balanced as the Bears’. Only when they fail to play as one unit do they ever fall short of hitting their marks. As long as the Bears play as one unit against the Eagles they will play well, especially with this being a home game that they should draw more energy than usual from.
The crowd at Soldier Field should be in a frantic frenzy for most of this contest, providing an added boost. From there, strong assignment-based play and picking each other up as one should be another goal that can allow the rest of the winning effort to fall into place.
Meeting of the Mad Scientists — One of the very interesting storylines in this matchup is the head coaches for both sides. Both worked under Andy Reid and the Chiefs until the Eagles hired Doug Pederson away followed by Nagy to the Bears. Pederson has done a great job in his Eagles stint winning a Super Bowl only in year two of his regime.
The Eagles offense will be similar to what the Bears do on offense since it all stems from their time working with Reid. Nagy seems to be more of the creative type and even Pederson admitted such in a press conference earlier this week. Now, these two play callers aren’t going against each other but they both are in the same position.
The strength of the Bears and the Eagles are their defenses. The play caller that can keep the opposing defense more off balanced might be the difference in a win or a loss for either side. These coaches are in charge of how each team attacks the other on offense, and they also will be the ones making situational decisions. Both are known for their aggressiveness in going for fourth downs and two point conversions.
The risk taker that makes the best gamble could be another deciding factor in this game. Both are great at preparing their teams and this should be a truly great game, the goal for the Bears is to have the better mad scientist in this game.
Clean Bill of Health? —The Bears won the division and locked up a playoff birth when they beat the Packers on December 16th. The team made the decision to play hard the final two weeks of the regular season in hopes of getting a first round bye.
The first round bye is such an advantage in the playoffs, its one less game to win and you get an extra week for your team to recover. The Bears wanted a bye week because it would give safety Eddie Jackson, linebacker Aaron Lynch and allow the top three receivers, Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, another week to recover with their minor injuries.
As of Thursday, Lynch was still not able to participate in practice and Jackson was limited. Good news is that the Bears look to be mostly healthy because the three receivers were able to fully practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
Losing any of these players would be a blow especially with Robinson and Jackson. The goal this week is to get as many of these guys back on the field for Sunday afternoon.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears for WARR