In prime position: Bears sitting pretty for first playoff berth in years
By Robert Zeglinski
For all of the shining energy at Halas Hall these days, there’s one topic that’s taboo to Matt Nagy’s Bears. For all the optimism, talent, and team chemistry galore, there’s something the Bears themselves want to stay grounded on. Something they maintain, and perhaps rightfully so, is a ways away from coming to fruition.
That of course being the dread “p-word”. The playoffs.
“You’ll never hear the word ‘playoffs’ with me,” Nagy said at Monday’s postgame press conference following a Chicago 41-9 blowout win over the Bills. “We’re worried about Game 9.”
That’s the proper mentality to take for a first-year coach standing out amongst his peers. From media relations, to digging the Bears out of holes, and properly connecting with his players, Nagy has pushed all the right buttons eight games into his coaching tenure. He looks like a well-deserved early frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year, as a matter of a fact, for his efforts.
So if this is the way for Nagy to keep his team’s eyes on the prize, it’s difficult to question that mindset. The NFL is a week-to-week league as the young Bears have learned over the course of the 2018 season. One week you look like a juggernaut, as the Bears did in Buffalo this past Sunday. The other you’re letting a journeyman quarterback like Brock Osweiler get one over on you in Miami. Nagy’s roster is learning how to consistently win. They’re still spreading their wings and opening their eyes as to what their collective talent is capable of.
To start thinking about the postseason a little under two months before January has even arrived wouldn’t be conducive for any organization around pro football. Let alone one like the Bears that hasn’t been consistently relevant since the previous decade. That’s when the press clippings er … tweets of praise get to your head.
That being said, it’s more than fair and realistic to look ahead for the Bears for everyone else. Given their recent doldrums, any midseason relevance should be welcome in Chicago, because it stands out like a sore thumb. Even for the Bears, their 5-3 first half through eight games played is unquestionably peculiar. Peculiar in that the numbers and odds are immensely in their favor in comparison to their NFC North counterparts.
The Lions, who are already two games behind the Bears in the divisional standings for one, play five games against teams currently above .500 in their last eight, including two games against Chicago. Way behind the eight-ball they may never catch.
The Packers, also two games behind the Bears in the standings, play against three teams above .500 in the second half, and have shown no consistent rhythm in any of their recent matchups.
Meanwhile, the Vikings – who will be Chicago’s greatest challenge for a divisional and playoff crown – play four out of seven games against teams above .500 in their second half, with four road contests. If there was a time to overcome each of this crew, it would be now.
The Bears, by that respect, only have to play three games against teams above .500 in their last eight games, and two of those contests are at home against the Rams and Vikings. Outside of those heavyweight bouts, Chicago will have the opportunity to oppose the lethargic Eli Manning and the Giants, and whoever the 49ers trot out at quarterback: two “gimme” games for a defense that should be salivating.
There’s a reason Football Outsiders has a calculation of 79 percent of the Bears making the postseason, and a 66.8 percent chance of winning their division: they have an easier road than everyone else and already have the leg up on two of their rivals.
Factor in the return of a healthy Khalil Mack and Allen Robinson, two of the Bears’ brightest stars and most important players, and you have the makings of a roster getting locked and loaded for some late fall, early winter football.
What a guy like an undoubtedly frustrated, antsy Mack will do is re-galvanize a Bears defense that isn’t intimidated by any active offense. When Mack is rolling on all cylinders and feeling it, there’s a palpable bounce to every other Bears defenders’ step. They want to get in on the action and the fun. They too want to get a sack, a takeaway, or a bone-crunching hit. It’s a finally healthy Mack that starts that elite defense avalanche better than anyone.
Meanwhile, Robinson has hardly lived up to a No. 1 receiver bill to this point, but is the top-billed offensive playmaker on the Bears’ roster for a reason. He’s the one guy that can consistently win one-on-one matchups on the outside. He’s the go-to man on third down and in the red zone. He’s the tone-setter for an offense seeking improved consistency, regardless of recent high level production. To have Robinson’s veteran presence back on the field helping Mitchell Trubisky and company take flight is a boon.
If the Bears can beat two teams in the Jets and Bills in consecutive weeks without Mack and Robinson and have a +46 point differential in that span, what happens when the two leaders return for this upcoming pivotal stretch? Unrelenting, controlled chaos.
It’s going to take much better and far more complete performances in all three phases for the Bears to break one of the franchise’s longest playoff droughts ever (seven years and counting). This is an organization that was on pace for the postseason in each of 2011, 2012, and 2013 that ended up falling disappointingly short, after all. It’s going to take necessary shelving of that playoff conversation for the team itself until a berth is actually clinched to keep aiming higher.
But that doesn’t change the fact that this current opportunity for the Bears is more prominent than it has been on the lakefront in a long time. They’d do well not to waste it and stay in the moment. Just like Nagy.
“(If) we worry about playoffs, then we’re worrying about the wrong thing.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.