First-and-10: Time for Bears to prove upset was no fluke

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Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks had two sacks against the Vikings on Monday night and now has four sacks in his last five games. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Did the Bears just take a huge step toward relevance? Or was the upset of the Vikings just a mirage — a well-timed match-up against a good team in a rut?

We’ll soon find out. The last time the Bears shocked the world — a 17-13 upset of the Packers and Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field last year — they parlayed the momentum into absolutely nothing. On the contrary, the Bears laid a huge egg, losing to the 3-8 San Francisco 49ers at home, 26-20 in overtime. In fact, the Bears lost their next three games and four of five to finish the 2015 season on a dreary note. The only team they beat in that span — the Buccaneers — fired its coach.

In a similar situation following an impressive 20-10 victory over the Vikings at Soldier Field on Monday night, the Bears have an opportunity to show just how far they’ve come. The Bears have two weeks to rest, get healthy and prepare for the Buccaneers (3-4) in Tampa. After that, they face the Giants (4-3), who will be coming off a Monday night game against the Eagles; the Titans (4-4), who will be playing their third road game in the past four; and the 49ers (1-6), who also will be playing their third game of four on the road, where they are 1-10 the past two seasons — the only victory against the Bears last year.

So far, Year 2 of the John Fox era has been a big disappointment. In recent years, Bears fans have been conditioned to expect the worst — a big reason why the consultant story gained traction so easily.

But while the Bears still are far from the NFL elite, the potential to build on an upset is a little greater this time than after the upset of the Packers last year — with an improved defense under Vic Fangio at the top of the list. The front seven that was expected to be a force is coming into focus with Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks more effective recently, Pernell McPhee back on the field and Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan providing consistency and production in the middle. For the first time since Lovie Smith was fired, the Bears have a defense with some bite to it. Especially around here, that’s always a good place to start.

1a. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who has missed the last five games with a high ankle sprain, could be the final major piece of the puzzle. “Hopefully we’ll have him back when we start preparation for Tampa,” Fox said.

1b. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains was an unsung hero of the upset over the Vikings. Playing with the lead almost from the start, he kept the Vikings’ No. 1-ranked defense off-balance with a solid game plan and astute play-calling.

Even last week when the Vikings’ offense struggled against the Eagles, the defense still had four takeaways to give the Vikings a chance. But they came up empty against the Bears — without a takeaway for the first time this season. Jay Cutler is the first quarterback this season without an interception against the Vikings.

2. It was only one game, but things are finally looking up for Bears general manager Ryan Pace.

Leonard Floyd has three sacks and a touchdown in his last two games. Akiem Hicks, recovering from a slow start, had two sacks against the Vikings and ha four in his last five games. Rookie Jordan Howard (26 carries, 153 yards, one touchdown) outgained Matt Forte (25-82, two touchdowns). Zach Miller (7 catches, 88 yards) outgained Martellus Bennett (4-35). Reserve guards Eric Kush and Ted Larsen didn’t leave anyone pining for Matt Slauson. And Connor Barth was 2-for-2 on field goals (30 and 28 yards) and has kicked seven in a row.

3. If you’re lamenting the Bears diminishing their chances for a top-five draft pick by beating the Vikings, stop it. The Bears beat the Vikings because key players played well — Floyd, Hicks, Jay Cutler, Jordan Howard. If they keep winning because they’re actually getting better, that’s more important than tanking an entire season Theo-style for a top-five pick — at least until the final game or two. This season still is about growth, and — with better health — the Bears are starting to show some.

4. If Jordan Howard had another gear he would have reached the end zone for an 82-yard score, but if he had that kind of speed, he wouldn’t have been around in the fifth round of the draft. As it was, an inside run that goes for 69 yards is pretty impressive not only for Howard, but for the Bears’ offense.

“Execution,” guard Eric Kush said. “Everybody made their blocks and that’s what happens when everything goes right on a play. You get a nice pop.”

5. Howard’s run was the fourth longest of the post-Payton era — behind Neal Anderson (80-yard touchdown vs. the Packers in 1988; 73 yards vs. the Packers in 1989); and Kahlil Bell (72 yards vs. the Eagles in 2009).

Howard is the Bears’ second running back since James Allen in 1998 to have to 50-plus rushes in a season. Matt Forte had three in 2010 (53, 68T, 61) and 2013 (55, 53T, 50T).

5a. Howard’s 26-carry, 153-yard rushing performance (5.9 avg.) was even more impressive considering the degree-of-difficulty. The Vikings came into the game ranked third in rushing defense (81.7 yards per game) and seventh in yards per attempt (3.7). Howard’s previous 100-yard games came against the Lions (27th in rushing defense/21st in yards per attempt) and Colts (22nd/14th).

5b. Prior to Monday night’s game, the Vikings had allowed only 13 rushes of 10-plus yards by running backs this season. Howard had four — 69, 11, 11 and 10 yards — on Monday night.

6. The Bears are going into the bye off a victory for the first time since 2012, when they beat the Jaguars 41-3 at Jacksonville. The only players left form that game are Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery and Sherrick McManis.

6a. John Fox teams are 10-4 in the game following the bye — including seven consecutive victories from 2008-14 before the Bears lost to the Vikings 23-20 last year on Blair Walsh’s 36-yard field goal as time expired.

7. For What It’s Worth Dept.: The last time a team with a 1-6 record or worse won on a Monday night — the 0-7 Bears beat the Dolphins 36-33 in overtime in 1997 — the Indians lost the World Series in seven games.

8. The Bears have won more games against NFC North opponents in the last five weeks (2-1) than they had in the previous two seasons (2-10). They beat the Lions 17-14 at Soldier Field in Week 4 and lost to the Packers 26-10 at Lambeau Field in Week 7.

The Bears, in fact, have not had a winning record in the division since 2010, when they were 5-1 en route to the NFC North title. Since then they have gone 3-3, 3-3, 2-4, 1-5 and 1-5 in the NFC North.

9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week — Matt Forte gained 82 yards on 25 carries (3.3 avg.) and scored two touchdowns (four- and two-yard runs) in the Jets’ 31-28 victory over the Browns.

10. Bear-ometer: 6-10 —at Buccaneers (W); at Giants (L); vs. Titans (W); vs. 49ers (W); at Lions (L); vs. Packers (L); vs. Redskins (W); at Vikings (L).

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