As the calendar flips to 2019 in just a couple short weeks, Bears fans will officially get a taste of NFL postseason play for the first time in eight long years and just the second trip since the beloved Monsters of the Midway fell to the Indianapolis Colts on a rainy Miami night in February of 2007.
Two postseason births in 12 seasons has recharged a fan base desperate for a Super Bowl win, which would be their first in 33 years. Chicago has seen 11 championship parades roll on since that legendary performance – six by Jordan’s Bulls, three from the Blackhawks, and one each from the White Sox and Cubs. Zero from our boys along the lake.
The Chicago Bears are one of the great unifiers in a somewhat divided city as we all grow up being told to pick either the North side or South side in baseball. And there is a common divide among NBA and NHL fans clinging to the “my winter sport is better than yours” idea. But in Chicago we all love the charter franchise in the NFL (outside of the Packers and Vikings fans that seem to infiltrate the region like cockroaches).
From a team with a ton of recent heartbreak though, what level excitement is acceptable for Bears fans right now? Is this another season where we are let down with an early exit? Are we going to see our squad fall short in Atlanta? Or somewhere in between? Do they actually have a chance to win the whole damn thing?
What is different this year?
First off, look no further than the man running the ship, first year head coach Matt Nagy. What a goddamn breath of fresh air this guy has been since Marc Trestman and John Fox drove the franchise into a complete state of irrelevance. A creative play caller and outside-the-box thinker, Nagy has made football fun to watch in Chicago and injected a air of confidence not seen along Lake Michigan since Lovie Smith took the Bears to the Super Bowl.
What Smith lacked on the surface and in the media, Nagy oozes in appeal. He’s a likable guy that gives the media just enough to seem like he is letting you in while still never divulging all that much important information. The defensive minded Smith lacked in hiring offensive coordinators ie. Terry Shea, Ron Turner, Mike Martz, Mike Tice. On the flip side, the former Kansas City OC saw the opportunity to retain an absolute star defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio as a must when he signed on to take over the Bears.
There is more than enough talent offensively to stay competitive with most teams led by Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard handling the backfield duties and a solid receiving core for Mitch Trubisky to spread the ball amongst and it’s clear Nagy is as prepared as anyone to put guys in the best spot to succeed.
The other difference in 2018 though is Defensive Player of the Year Candidate Khalil Mack and the identity he has given the Bears defense. Mack has had an impact on the Bears like no other acquisition either by trade or free agency in the Chicago sports lexicon in recent memory. He has transformed a blossoming, but still very raw defense into a feared unit that no team and especially no opposing quarterback wants to face.
Combined with a star in the making in rookie linebacker Roquan Smith as well as Pro Bowlers in ballhawk safety Eddie Jackson, the rejuvenated Kyle Fuller, and bruising lineman Akiem Hicks, the Bears defense has disruptive play-makers at all three levels. They thrive on taking the ball away and they do it so ridiculously well.
They get pressure from both sides and are able to do it without bringing extra guys on every snap. Mix that in with Fangio’s propensity to bring guys from all angles when they do blitz, and it’s a sight to watch.
The linebacking corps made up of Mack, Leonard Floyd, Smith, and veteran Danny Trevathan is one of the best units in the league. Well coached, mean, and aggressive, the defense is more than capable of winning a game or two in January on their own. Teams simply cannot afford to turn the ball over in the NFL and expect to win games so when you take the ball away at the rate the Bears do, you can hide your warts a bit easier.
What is there to worry about?
The Bears clearly have a defense worth booking plans to stay in lovely(?) Atlanta come February. Outside of the other contenders in the NFC led by the Saints and Rams, the Bears will need to overcome a few potential internal road blocks along the way if bringing home the Lombardi Trophy is going to happen.
I really like Trubisky and I think he can be a very solid pro. He’ll develop in the coming years under Nagy’s tutelage and I can confidently say Mitch will be a top-10 NFL quarterback at some point in the relatively near future. He’s not there yet though. His best asset currently is his ability to escape pressure and turn a loss of yardage into a solid gain and keep the chains moving.
He misses too many throws though right now which is expected of a QB as green as he is. He has a good arm and is physically capable of making any throw on the field but is prone to sailing throws leading to bad picks and putting pressure on his defense. Another night of three picks against the Rams will be a killer in January. The pressure of going to New Orleans or Los Angeles with so much on the line could be a death-knell for the second year pro.
Playoff games are often decided by less than seven points. Obviously it’s great to have a lights out defense and a capable offense, but that third phase is what usually can swing the pendulum either way in the postseason. Cody Parkey, while better than he was since tagging the upright four times against Detroit earlier in the season, still does not inject a ton of confidence.
You frankly can’t rely on him for a kick to take the lead or tie a game outside of 45 yards late in a big game. We’ve seen Trubisky march the offense down the field in crunch time in his young career. But if he has to get inside the opponents 25 yard line to feel confident the kicker can put one through the uprights, it doesn’t make it any easier on the kid.
The other big question the Bears will need to over come is their youth and inexperience. I think a young team can sometimes be oblivious to the size of the moment they face in sports and inexperience and youth can actually be an asset at times. But the NFL is a different animal. The Rams and Saints are full of veteran leadership and armed with what likely would be home field advantage over the Bears. Young teams on the road in January don’t often make it out alive.
Despite having beaten the Rams at home a couple weeks back, the Bears having to go west without Bear Weather (yes, it’s real) in their back pocket isn’t re-assuring. Going to the Mercedes Benz Superdome (site of the only Bears Super Bowl win) in New Orleans without being battle tested and beating Drew Brees and company is asking a lot of a young squad.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com the Bears have a total of 27 games of playoff experience among their 22 offensive and defensive regular starters – led by Trevathan’s seven from his time in Denver. The young Bears will get exposed to the ramped up play quickly and how they react even in their first quarter of playoff action will be a key indicator to watch.
So do I need to temper my expectations/excitement?
HELL NO! This team is exciting as any in the league. Fast, cocky, fearless, well-coached, and with playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Bears are as likely as anyone to represent the NFC. They may have arrived on stage a bit earlier than expected. They have some warts – as does every other team in the NFL. But they are playing their best football of the season right now save for the awful trap game on the road against the Giants without Trubisky under center. They slayed the demon in Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last week. They knocked off the Rams the week earlier and brought the possibility of a first round bye into play with that win and the Rams subsequent loss to Philly.
Success is fleeting in the NFL and despite the youthful roster, health isn’t guaranteed next season. They need to do whatever it takes to seize the moment now. The defense will have to play at near legendary status. The offense is going to have to limit the mistakes but also not change their style of play and all of a sudden go conservative. Mitch has to be at his best.
As we wind down the final two weeks of the regular season Bears fans have a right do be jacked up. We haven’t seen a team in our city with a defense like this paired with a balanced offensive attack since the mid-80’s. We’re hungry. We’re due. And we’ve got one helluva team to go to battle with.
Locking up a playoff spot for this young team is check-mark on the list of goals. Doing it with three weeks to go and a possible first round bye is gravy. But they have a real chance here. There isn’t an unbeatable team in the league. So why not just go do it now? In my head I keep going back to a line from Jake Taylor in the movie Major League – “Well then I guess there’s only one thing left to do – win the whole f****** thing.”
I think Matt Nagy, Khalil Mack, and the Bears have that mentality too.
Credit: Pro Football Weekly. Pictured: Khalil Mack
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