By Robert Zeglinski
Every late December a curious phenomenon riddles the NFL: a chorus of mostly irrelevant head-to-head football. Since most teams are way out of the playoff picture and playing for pride by Christmas, that turns a lot of games into anti-climactic glorified exhibitions. Games with minimal stakes, little tension, and often only playoff seeding on the line, if that, for one participant.
For years, the formerly irrelevant Bears played into this trend. An organization that had been eliminated from the postseason by the late season turned playing for pride into a new and not readily accepted holiday tradition. Four straight last place finishes in the NFC North meant four straight seasons of playing out the string by the time Santa and his reindeer came riding in.
After clinching the NFC North championship against the Packers a little over a week ago, and an ugly, sloppy 14-9 win that looked like a preseason effort over the 49ers on Sunday, the Bears, for once, are the team playing for playoff seeding. No longer do they only have their pride and self respect to play for. They’re one of the few NFL teams left actually playing for something at the end of the season with more meaningful football to come.
If it feels like the Twilight Zone of a Bears Christmas, that’s because it probably is.
The scenario is this: with a Bears win over the Vikings on the road, and a 49ers win over the Rams on the road next week, the Bears can jump up to the NFC’s No. 2 seed. They cannot finish any worse than the No. 3 seed and cannot jump up to the No. 1 seed after the New Orleans Saints clinched. With great luck, the Bears can avoid having to play on Wild Card weekend altogether two weeks from now and enjoy well-deserved time off. That’s if everything swings in their favor in an interesting playoff situation.
“If we were in a position where you can’t just move seed-wise, where we’re just locked in, then that’s something you gotta discuss,” Matt Nagy said in the postgame of the Bears’ win in Santa Clara. “We’re not in that position, so we gotta play to win, and I kinda like that.”
“It just keeps you going as you were fortunate enough to make the playoffs, it keeps you going in that rhythm.”
Nagy’s public position is fascinating because the Bears do not control their own destiny in this seeding regard, and because they need a lot of help from a 49ers team that hasn’t won a road game all year. If the Bears go full throttle in an ultimately meaningless and fruitless outing as the 49ers end up failing in Los Angeles, when instead they could’ve taken some quality rest time for several Bears starters, it won’t look like the most prudent of long term decisions.
You indeed do play to win the game along the mandated football cliche. That doesn’t match up with the now well-established Nagy mindset of the past. In fact, going full throttle for an unlikely No. 2 seed when you have a de-facto guaranteed bye week available now is a direct contrast to everything Nagy has built in 15 games for the 11-4 Bears.
This is a coach that rested Bears starters in their fourth preseason game against the Chiefs in August because he thought they had enough repetitions throughout the summer and off-season as a team. A decision that drew significant ire from around town, that had people drumming up pitchforks and torches, where Nagy couldn’t care less.
This is the leader of a team that took his time in ingratiating Khalil Mack, Allen Robinson, and Mitchell Trubisky back from respective ankle, groin, and throwing shoulder injuries at midseason. Each of which theoretically could’ve came back sooner, but didn’t. The latter of which in Trubisky may have cost the Bears a win against the Giants as backup quarterback Chase Daniel failed in New York. Again, Nagy couldn’t have cared less along his refreshing player health perspective.
This coach, more than most professional football head coaches, has played it cautiously and safely throughout his entire inaugural season in Chicago. It’s why he just broke George Halas’s record for most wins by a rookie head coach: he’s capable of seeing the nuance in the rear view mirror, and he can look ahead. It’s why he’s won the trust of his players as they know he sees the bigger picture.
A 330-plus pound man in Akiem Hicks has played at least 84 percent of the snaps in four of the Bears’ last five games. Khalil Mack has played over 90 percent of the snaps in the last two weeks as Aaron Lynch nurses a shoulder injury. These are two of, if not the best players on the Bears roster that will assuredly play near the same amount of snaps in the postseason if Chicago goes on a deep run into January. They’re going to be ridden, hard, for better or worse with the Bears’ playoff lives on the line. The fresher they are, the better off the Bears are going to be.
Hicks and Mack are mere examples of a host of Bears that could use time to decompress when they can before the coming rollercoaster playoff ride. Injuries also happen in football and can’t be controlled, but how the Bears would feel if they lost a major contributor in a game where they really likely couldn’t change anything about the standings? Take Sunday in Santa Clara, for example, when Robinson, Hicks, and Kyle Fuller all had to leave at separate moments due to injury. If the Bears lose that caliber of starter of any kind on the road in Minnesota, they won’t be in the merry holiday spirit about pushing the pedal to the metal.
It doesn’t behoove the Bears to throw Hicks, Mack, or any major starter into the fire of a Minnesota gauntlet where it’s highly unlikely they end up changing their fate. It doesn’t match up with the ideals of a coach in Nagy who has typically always played the simultaneously aggressive and cautious percentages, but might not now.
Fortunately, for the Bears’ sake, they’re scheduled to play at the same time as the Rams next Sunday, and can scoreboard watch and adjust play time as necessary. With all things considered, it’s best Nagy and company don’t throw caution to the wind and choose to deck Halas Hall with boughs of holly.
“We need to go about this thing next week just like we have every other game,” Nagy said. “What you can control is winning your game as much as possible.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.