First-and-10: Improving Bears closing the gap on Packers, Vikings, Lions

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Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery (88) breaks away from the Bears defense for a 37-yard touchdown in the Packers’ 23-16 victory without Aaron Rodgers last year at Soldier Field. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP photo

On paper, the NFC North became a little more winnable for the Bears on Tuesday.

Two division rivals traded starting players. The Packers dealt safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Redskins and traded running back Ty Montgomery to the Ravens. The Lions traded leading receiver Golden Tate to the Eagles.

A break for the Bears? It probably doesn’t hurt. Clinton-Dix is a five-year starter but hasn’t lived up to his 2016 Pro Bowl form. After a subpar season in 2017, he had three interceptions this season but still wasn’t playing at a level to earn an extension from the Packers. Tate leads the Lions in receptions (44) and yards (517) this season. The Bears play the Lions twice in the next four weeks — Nov. 11 at Soldier Field and Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field.

Whatever the degree of impact, the apparent weakening of the Packers and Lions continues a first-half trend that bodes well for the Bears. Not only are the Bears better this season under new coach Matt Nagy, but the rest of the division seems a little more vulnerable.

Nobody’s ready to bury the Packers and Vikings, two teams that still have Super Bowl hopes. But they’re not as far ahead of the Bears as they were when the season started.

The Packers are 3-3-1, their worst record after seven games in the Aaron Rodgers era. Their plus-2 point differential also is the lowest of the Rodgers era at this point of the season — well below their average of 43.8. The Packers normally are one of the NFL’s most efficient offensive teams with Rodgers, often ranking higher in points than yards. This year, they rank fifth in yards but 13th in points.

The Vikings fell to 4-3-1 with a 30-20 home loss to the Saints on Sunday night, despite outgaining the Saints 423 yards to 270 and holding Drew Brees to 120 yards — his lowest passing total in a full game since he came to New Orleans in 2006. Two ill-timed turnovers spelled the Vikings’ doom. They have plenty of time to kick it into high gear, but after going 13-3 and playing in the NFC Championship Game last season, they haven’t taken that next step.

And now they have more competition. The Bears are one of only two teams in the NFL in the top 10 in points scored (ninth) and points allowed (eighth). The Bears still have a long way to go, but the rough road doesn’t look as difficult to navigate as it once did.

2.Bears fans probably are as happy to see Montgomery leave the division as Clinton-Dix. Montgomery epitomized the Packers’ knack for finding unsung heroes — Erik Walden, James Jones, etc. — to torment the Bears in the Rodgers era.

The former wide receiver’s three best rushing games have come against the Bears: 16 carries for 162 yards and two touchdowns in 2016 at Soldier Field; nine carries for 60 yards in 2016 at Lambeau Field; and six carries for 54 yards at Lambeau Field last year.

Montgomery, in fact, averages 8.2 yards per carry against the Bears (38 carries, 311 yards, three touchdowns) — and 3.9 against the rest of the NFL.

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3.Right guard Kyle Long was sixth on my preseason (and pre-Khalil Mack) list of players the Bears could least afford to lose this season, behind quarterback Mitch Trubisky, linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive end Akiem Hicks, running back Jordan Howard and left tackle Charles Leno.

It’s a huge unknown how much the Bears will miss Long, who’s out six to eight weeks with an injured right foot, according to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport. Long still is an outstanding player — arguably their best offensive lineman. But the Bears at least have a capable replacement in Eric Kush, who started the first six games at left guard before missing Sunday’s game against the Jets with a stinger.

Kush is not Long. But he’s good enough that the momentum of the Bears’ offensive progress can make up the difference. Everything’s relative, but for what it’s worth, the Eagles went 10-2 and won the Super Bowl after 2016 fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai replaced All-Pro tackle Jason Peters near midseason last year.

4.Nagy’s decision to not play Mack and wide receiver Allen Robinson is a sign the first-year coach learns from his mistakes. Based on consultations with team trainers and the players, Nagy had played Mack and Robinson against the Patriots. But both were ineffective — and Robinson aggravated his groin injury and didn’t finish the game. Nagy wisely erred on the side of caution against the Jets. That’s a good sign, especially with similar decisions likely to come up as the Bears play the final nine weeks of the season without a break.

5.Sign of progress: With their three losses coming by a total of 11 points, the Bears’ plus-50 scoring differential is third in the NFC, sixth in the NFL and their best at this point of the season since Lovie Smith was fired after the 2012 season.

The Bears’ scoring differential after seven games for the previous five seasons: minus-29, minus-58, minus-62, minus-14 and plus-17 in 2013.

6.By the numbers: Against the Jets, the Bears “earned the right to rush the passer,” as Hicks likes to say. They had third-and-nine or longer nine times, with an average distance of 8.6 yards on third down. Against the Patriots the previous week, the Bears never faced anything longer than third-and-seven, with an average third-down distance of 2.9 yards — a recipe for disaster against Tom Brady.

7.With Trubisky’s four-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Miller on the second possession of the second half against the Jets, the Bears’ offense has scored 55 points in the third quarter in seven games this season. Last year, the Bears scored just seven offensive points in the third quarter of their first seven games — and 34 for the season.

8.The Bears’ final nine opponents have a combined record of 29-34-3, including the Bills (2-6), Giants (1-7) and 49ers (1-7). Only the Vikings (4-3-1) and Rams (8-0) are above .500.

9.Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week Award: Redskins linebacker Mason Foster had a team-high 13 tackles and stopped Saquon Barkley five times for one yard or less in a 20-13 victory over the Giants. Foster, who was cut by the Bears in training camp in 2015, has had four games with 10 or more tackles this season.

10.Bear-ometer: 9-7 — at Bills (W); vs. Lions (W); vs. Vikings (L); at Lions (L); at Giants (W); vs. Rams (L); vs. Packers (W); at 49ers (W); at Vikings (L).

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