Chicago Sports Exchange: Bears Win Again, Continue To Defy Playoff Odds

The Chicago Sports Exchange provides a brief look at each pro team in the Chi each week and decides whether fans should “buy,” “sell,” or “hold” their investments in each team. Check back for more CSE reports each Monday.

By Drew Stevens (@lookwhatdrewdid)

Potential front-office face lifts and a prime draft position be damned!

The Chicago Bears went on the road and outlasted Minnesota Sunday 33-27, scraping together the team’s first pair of consecutive victories since October and keeping an NFC post-season berth within reach. 

According to ESPNs Football Power Index, the Bears (7-7) now have a 35 percent chance of making the playoffs compared to the negligible 2% odds that would’ve awaited them had they lost.

The remaining objectives for the Bears are simple — beat their remaining two opponents, Jacksonville and Green Bay — but their mid-season slump constitutes the need for a stimulus package in the form of at least one Arizona Cardinals loss. The Cardinals (8-6) finish their season against divisional foes San Francisco (5-9) and Los Angeles (9-5). 

While its not what every fan desires, the Bears could creep into the playoffs posing more of a threat than their record and overall makeup would indicate. 

As their once 5-1 record proved prior, looks can be deceiving with this club. 

BUY – Bears Continue Unlikely Last Gasp At Playoffs

It took being a dark horse in the wild card race and mounting outcries for an unprecedented in-season coaching change, but Bears head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor finally tailored their offense to its strengths and not their individual fancies, using power and consistency to wear down the rival Vikes Sunday.

The bullish third-year coach and like-minded OC unfettered Mitch Trubisky from the confines of the pocket and Trubisky in turn completed 15 of his 21 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown to go along with 34 yards gained on the ground. 

Even more astounding was their uncharacteristic commitment to running the football. David Montgomery carried the ball 32 times for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns behind a revitalized offensive line. Montgomery has now scored six times in the last six games in the most productive streak of his two-year professional career.

Trubisky and Montgomery fueled an offense that amassed its largest first-half point total in Minnesota since 1968 and scored on seven of its eight possessions following an opening drive three-and-out drive. 

Save for two throws, Trubisky threw with discretion and precision. His lone giveaway — a red zone under throw — was nullified when the defense forced a turnover on downs on the Vikings’ ensuing drive. 

A date with the 1-win Jacksonville Jaguars, the current holders of the No. 1 draft pick in the next draft, is next on the calendar.

Barring Nagy’s and Lazor’s need to scratch any perverse itches, the Bears should be a few more percentage points closer to a playoff appearance this time next week. 

HOLD – As Opener Looms, Bulls Offense Shows Sparks But Refinement Needed

On the surface, the ratio of Lauri Markkanen’s makes-to-misses this preseason spells inefficiency. 

A bit of zooming in, however, reveals a player brimming with more confidence coming into Wednesday’s opener against the Atlanta Hawks than his woeful 19-for-50 shooting returns would seem to warrant. 

Shift back into macro perspective and it’s evident Markkanen’s ebbing and flowing — as well as the coming and going of the team’s overall defensive zest — will, more than anything, be key to unlocking either the prosperity or peril of the Chicago Bulls this season. 

This time around it won’t be for lack of offensive ingenuity, at least.

Markkanen has been encouraged to handle the ball in the open floor and in pick-and-rolls with Wendell Carter Jr. as part of Billy Donovan’s ball-and-player-movement centric offense. His assertion in doing so could unburden at least a portion of the scoring load from Zach LaVine and Coby White, who is also strapped with the additional responsibilities that come from playing point guard. 

Markkanen’s array of skills also allows Donovan to continue experimenting with lineups in which he’s featured at center with rousing rookie Patrick Williams, a reinvigorated Chandler Hutchison and sprightly Otto Porter Jr.

“It’s a good thing to see him bounce back and get ready for the regular season,” LaVine told the media Thursday in response of Markkanen’s team-high 22-point performance on 9-for-17 shooting from the field and 4-for-10 from beyond the arc in the Bulls final preseason contest Friday. 

“He’s just got to keep his confidence. And we’re all on him to make sure he’s taking those shots, because we need it.”

Following the midweek clash with Trae Young and the Hawks to start the season on Wednesday, the Bulls will play back-to-back games against Indiana (Saturday) and Golden State (Sunday). 

HOLD – Front Office Reshuffling Shows Deep Need For Change With Hawks

When John McDonough was abruptly ousted as president of the Chicago Blackhawks in April, it was presumed Stan Bowman’s dismissal would soon follow.

Instead, it was announced Wednesday that Bowman will not only retain his title of general manager but now also oversee hockey operations as part of his promotion to team president. 

The front-office reshuffling, which included the hiring of Jamie Faulkner as president of business operations and naming of Danny Wirtz, who served as interim president, as chief executive officer, is meant “to put the pieces into place that will bring a new mindset and culture to the Chicago Blackhawks, that will lead us into the future,” said chairman Rocky Wirtz in a public statement.

Stan Bowman wants to get Chicago Blackhawks back on championship course (ESPN/AP)

It begs the question though, how much different of a course can be set for a team that, since hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup five years ago, hasn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs with Bowman general managing?

“You can bring new for sake of new, or you can work with existing folks who have a hunger to grow,” Danny Wirtz said Thursday. 

It’s evident Bowman is chomping at the bit to help lead the Hawks back to the days of prominence that saw them win three titles in six years. 

It’s also clear that their rebound isn’t yet on the doorstep, though the development of the team’s young forwards and the longevity of its remaining core will dictate the length of ramp up to legitimate contention.

Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago

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