By Robert Zeglinski
This time a year ago, a confident roster full of leaders, dynamic talents, underdogs, and a courageous coach were preparing to go on a Super Bowl run for the ages. They had the NFL’s best defense led by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, a host of balanced offensive playmakers in Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery, and were dripping with swagger and team chemistry thanks to head coach Doug Pederson. That team was the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran roughshod through the NFC en route to an upset of the dynastic Tom Brady-Bill Belichick New England Patriots on February’s big stage.
If that construct sounds familiar and hits close to home, it should. A year later, the Bears, who capped off their first season of at least 12 wins since 2006 Sunday, are sitting in the same boat. They have the NFL’s best defense led by Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, a host of balanced offensive playmakers in Mitchell Trubisky and Tarik Cohen, and are dripping with swagger and team chemistry thanks to head coach Matt Nagy.
The only thing missing is a Super Bowl at the end of a perilous January.
It’s so incredibly fitting that these two teams, built in the most of similar of fashions from top to bottom, meet this Sunday in the NFC Wild Card Game. While the Eagles have taken dramatic steps back from the formidable 13-win team of yesteryear, they are still a force to be reckoned with and should be respected as such. They were, and have pieces of, what the Bears are now, after all.
The Eagles and Bears, through every relevant facet, are models of what aggressive team building and a friendly organizational culture should exemplify in the modern NFL. They match up well in the trenches and arguably have the best atmospheres established in pro football.
So why on Earth would non-existent cliches of momentum and experience mean anything in the context of Chicago’s first postseason game in almost a decade?
In the lead up to Sunday’s Wild Card Game at Soldier Field, narratives of the Eagles being vested postseason veterans and being the hottest team in football are going to be endlessly espoused as their primary advantages over the Bears. None of it makes much of any sense.
Instead of focusing on the quality of players like Michael Bennett, Fletcher Cox, and Brandon Graham that can make life a living hell for the Chicago offense, it’s the late season three-game winning streak of the Eagles that curiously matters most. Instead of centering on Jason Kelce, the NFL’s arguable best center leading a solid Philadelphia offensive line against the Bears’ monstrous defensive front, it’s laden experience that apparently leads the way for Philadelphia. Where Nagy and Pederson, two long-time coaching friends that both studied under Kansas City’s Andy Reid, present a quality coaching matchup, it’s instead the entirely fictitious idea of momentum that drives the way.
Which begs the question as to what these narratives supposedly in favor of the Eagles actually mean.
If the Eagles are the hottest team in pro football after closing the 2018 regular season with three straight wins, then what are the Bears, who have lost one game since October? That game, against the Giants in early December, was without Mitchell Trubisky at the helm: who is personally undefeated as a starter since October.
If the Eagles are that much more experienced than the Bears, what were they last year in early January as a roster comprised mostly of guys with zero postseason victories? In last year’s Divisional Round, Philadelphia dispatched the Atlanta Falcons, who had played in the Super Bowl the previous season. Atlanta was certainly far more experienced the Eagles. It didn’t matter. The Eagles were the better team.
If the Eagles have the momentum in their favor, which can’t be tangibly measured by the way, then what is it the Bears possess after stomping out the division rival Vikings when they didn’t have to? Or any host of three, four, and five-game winning streaks they’ve enjoyed over the course of the 2018 season. If momentum is a relevant concept in the NFL, and again, it isn’t, then what exact advantage do the Eagles have over a Bears team that’s allowed two touchdowns in it’s last four games?
The storylines, all week, leading up to Sunday will be that the Bears should be afraid of the Eagles not because of how solidly their roster is built. Not because of how well-coached they are, just like the Bears are. But because of their past accomplishments and intangibles no one can put a proper price tag on. That’s such a flawed ideal and way of thinking in regards to evaluating football. If the Eagles win on Sunday, they will have outplayed the Bears with their best players playing better than Chicago’s best players, plain and simple. Nothing else.
The playoffs aren’t about momentum or experience or who goes in riding a wave into January. It’s quite literally, as it is in the regular season, who coaches, plays, and executes better: with the added incentive of sudden death for both participating teams in a defeat. Nothing more, nothing less. To rely on other cliches and underlying storylines that don’t exist muddles the framework of the journey of both teams. To not see that the bigger picture that absolutely nothing has changed in regards to the football being played except for the fact that it is a must-win in every game, is misguided.
If coaches and players themselves prescribed to this mentality, especially the playoff-fresh Bears, no one would ever accomplish anything meaningful in the postseason. The postseason presents the same challenge as any other game, except for the added pressure of elimination. Treat it as such.
“We’re not going to change things just because we’re in the playoffs now,” Nagy said on Monday
The Bears have a potentially special postseason run ahead of them given what they possess on their roster, and how they fit within the confines of the NFC. They look like a team to be feared, and could be hoisting Nagy on their shoulders in Atlanta in a little over a month.
The Bears also could be one-and-done and or have a short ride because hey, the playoffs are difficult by their very nature. You’re playing the best the league has to offer every week, and that’s a recipe for disaster based on pure competition. It’s the playoffs, nothing is guaranteed.
Don’t try and sell any other narrative or ideals of football that don’t exist to drum up more meaning for games that don’t need them and already are high intensity. Neither the Eagles or Bears, or anyone associated with them, need extra incentive. The Bears and Nagy in particular understand the moment plenty well enough.
“This is where it gets real,” Nagy said. “I’m excited we get to have one at home.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.