By Robert Zeglinski
Every holiday season, the beauty of a home-cooked meal shines through. The nostalgia and endorphins of one’s childhood reverberate constantly. There are almost always nothing but positive memories associated with a home-cooked meal because of what it represents at home with family. Warmth. Love. Positivity. You name it. You can’t compare a home-cooked holiday meal to takeout, Lean Cuisine, or any assortment of leftovers on any other weeknight.
Similarly, the 2018 Bears, who just clinched their first NFC North title since 2010, play like different team when within the confines of Soldier Field. When they can get their home cooking going, they’re an insurmountable animal to overcome as a football team. They’re arguably the NFL’s best team when playing in their environment as you’d be hard-pressed to pick anyone to win a road outing in Chicago in January. The comforts of the holiday season are a blessing.
With their convincing 24-17 victory over the Packers Sunday, Chicago finished the regular season at home with a nearly impregnable 7-1 record. That’s their best record at home since 2006: the last time the Bears ended up playing in the Super Bowl. A playoff-like atmosphere was especially evident in the Bears’ last three games played next to Lake Michigan: victories against the Vikings, Rams, and Packers, respectively. An atmosphere the Bears reveled in and channeled to the best of their abilities.
It’s by no coincidence that head coach Matt Nagy, who has regularly emphasized the importance of “protecting Soldier Field,” would be ecstatic with how his team has responded in their own digs, and how fans have jumped on board in response.
“That was great. We are ready for the fans again. For that and the fans to be absolutely crazy again,” said Nagy of the noise and environment in the Bears’ primetime win over the Rams two weeks ago. A night where the Bears introduced an air raid siren to play on third downs and rev the home crowd and defense up when necessary. A new tradition that has taken on a life of it’s own.
When it was largely the same kind of tone and environment against the Packers with the NFC North on the line, Nagy couldn’t help but fully embrace the meaning of the moment.
“We gave the game ball to the city and the fans,” said Nagy after Chicago capped a division title campaign against the Packers. A worthy reward for what has again become one of the toughest places to play in pro football.
There are a few cliches in pro football that should endure the tests of time. The first is that the team which wins the turnover battle is the one that will most often winning an individual game. That’s obvious. Have more takeaways than giveaways, or at least less giveaways, and you have the best chance to come out on top. The Bears have the NFL’s best turnover margin at +13, so it’s easy to see a main reason of why they’re 10-4 through 14 games.
The second is playing well at home and maximizing that preset gifted advantage. If you can’t take care of business at home, then you most likely won’t fare well when the games get increasingly meaningful. If you can’t play well in front of people rooting for your success, how are you supposed to overcome adversity in the inherent Thunderdome of a road game? There’s something to be said about the occasional exceptions of NFL road warrior teams that do better away from their stadiums, but those are far and few between.
Take care of business at home, and the rest takes care of itself. The Bears, as one of the NFL’s legitimate championship contenders this season, have accomplished that better than most.
In eight games played at Soldier Field, the Bears only allowed more than 20 points three times against the Patriots, Lions, and Vikings. They averaged allowing 17.5 points per game collectively. On the road, in six games played to this point, the Bears No. 1 defense has had by far it’s worst games of the season. A 31-point outing against the Dolphins. 30 points allowed against the Giants. And 20 points in just 16 minutes against the Packers in Week 1. That translates to roughly 21 points per game allowed on the road, and is essentially the difference between the league’s best scoring defense and it’s seventh.
In eight games played at Soldier Field, the Bears offense has averaged 28 points per game. Mitchell Trubisky in particular has had some of the best games of his career with six touchdown passes against the Buccaneers in Week 4 and a stellar performance against the Lions in Week 11. On the road, the Bears average scoring 26 points per game. They’ve been stymied a little more, though it isn’t that big of a drop off in comparison to their defense.
The saying is that defense travels in the NFL. But that hasn’t always been the case for the Bears this year. In fact, it’s been the opposite as they’ve had their worst performances when having to travel in 2018. The same goes for the Chicago attack, just to a lesser extent.
Ultimately, this could prove to be problematic for the Bears once they hit the playoffs as at the moment they’re only guaranteed one home playoff game in January with no first-round bye. This is a talented team that will likely have to take it’s show on the road to Los Angeles or New Orleans should it emerge victorious from the trying embers of the Wild Card Round. It’s also ironically those road losses to the Packers, Dolphins, and Giants against inferior opponents on paper that will have cost the Bears a chance at more home cooking in the January cold of Soldier Field. Go figure.
That’s the rub for a team looking to make a deep postseason run despite everything otherwise in their favor. Those same Saints and Rams are exemplary home teams with active 5-1 and 6-1 home records. As well as Bears fans travel, and as well-balanced of a roster as the Bears possess, the two teams they will have to tear asunder are just as good at home.
For once, in some of the biggest moments in franchise history, the Bears are going to have to settle for takeout in January and make the most of it. There won’t be much of any more home cooking, and if they want to win their first Super Bowl since 1985, they’ll have to become those exceptional, uncommon road warriors.
For now, they can roost in the beauty of that one guaranteed early January game at Soldier Field. Any home playoff game is welcome for these Bears after their extended absence.
“We can’t wait to have a home playoff game,” said Akiem Hicks.
It’s been a long time coming.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.