By Robert Zeglinksi
Prior to the start of the 2018 season, if you were told the Bears would score the most points of any NFC North team through four games, you’d be ecstatic.
If you had heard they had simultaneously allowed the least amount of points with the NFL’s statistical best defense, you’d lean forward in your chair. If you saw them sitting atop the division at 3-1 with a very early first-round playoff bye, you wouldn’t be able to contain yourself.
More than anything, you’d rub your eyes and shake your head. You’d insist the idea that the Bears looking and played like a juggernaut at any point was an entirely unrealistic dream.
Sometimes dreams do become reality.
After drubbing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-10 Sunday, the Bears are sitting in the best, most advantageous position they’ve been in years. After so much time spent struggling to field a balanced team on both sides of the ball, Chicago has the NFL’s best defense thanks to utter dominance from Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and a raucous group of hungry defenders. If they’ve run through the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, and Buccaneers with ease, imagine the heights they can yet reach. A terrifying thought for the rest of the NFL is: how much better this Bears defense can get?
On offense, the Bears finally, mercifully have a promising young quarterback under center in Mitchell Trubisky surrounded by a surplus of weapons. A quarterback who just set a Bears record for touchdown passes in a half with five. Trubisky was so good against Tampa Bay in offering a glimpse of his bright future, he set the rare Bears quarterbacking record that is independently impressive regardless of Chicago’s horrid and inconsistent history at the position. It’s not often any quarterback for any NFL team throws for five scores in 30 minutes of game time, after all.
As the Bears enter their early Week 5 bye at 3-1 for the first time since 2013, they’re riding high. They’re prepared to break out of their shell under general manager Ryan Pace.
So let’s do a cross examination of the first month of the Matt Nagy era.
Team Most Valuable Player: Khalil Mack
If Mack wasn’t on the Bears roster, there’s a legitimate case they’d sitting without a win. With him, instead, they’re a legitimate title contender. That’s the kind of impact the 27-year-old early Defensive Player of the Year front-runner has had on not only Chicago’s defense, but the team as a whole. Mack has been so good, he has a case to be the defensive NFL MVP since ironically the player he’s most compared to in Giants First-ballot Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.
As the first player to record a strip sack in four straight games since the Colts’ Robert Mathis in 2005, Mack’s galvanizing presence has been more than anyone could’ve originally conceived. Beyond his original play, he’s elevated others like Hicks and Eddie Jackson into superstar-level play. He’s turned Chicago into the league’s most suffocating defense across the board. He’s given Trubisky and the offense a cushion any time they make a mistake.
If Mack maintains his current pace of play, he’ll break Richard Dent’s single-season record of 17.5 sacks set in 1984. He’s the most individually talented player the Bears have possessed in decades and had rippling effects on a previously dormant organization.
Biggest question: Offensive consistency
The Bears’ 48 points and touchdowns on five of their first seven possessions against the Buccaneers was a great sign of what the offense is capable of when running on all cylinders. It’s also unrealistic to expect them to maintain that same level of play after they return from their bye week. If they were able to, they’d not only be the greatest team in NFL history, they might be barred from the league for unfairness of competition.
That’s why the key moving forward is how Trubisky and Nagy make sure the drop-off from their breakthrough performance isn’t off a cliff. There are going to be more road bumps for the Bears and this budding offense, but they can’t have the kinds of valleys they were mired in in much of September. If this offense can even be average and create a consistent identity, then this Bears team itself is a contender, and not a paper tiger. It’s crucial that Nagy and his franchise quarterback recognize their strengths and faults after quality evaluation and keep the train rolling.
Second half key: Rolling through the division
Considering the lack of strength in the AFC East, there’s a tangible possibility the Bears are sitting at at least 6-2 after their next four games when they come back from their break. After that, they face an NFC North opponent in five of their last eight contests and will also have the Los Angeles Rams visit Soldier Field in early December. That final season run is what will end up defining Chicago’s 2018 season.
The Bears haven’t finished at .500 in the NFC North since 2012. They haven’t come to play against a titanic contender in years. If this franchise is to break a seven-year playoff drought and continue valuable momentum, they can’t afford worse play against anyone in their division, or any NFL alpha dog.
Contrary to popular belief, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for a young Bears team after a major victory. It allows them to take a step back, get healthy, and rev up for what should be one of the most exhilarating second halves of a season for a Bears team in a long time.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.