The Bears look like a playoff team at 8-3 with five consecutive victories. But are they anything more than that?
“We believe in ourselves, and we believe in this team,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “And I think if you have that type of belief, we can take this pretty far.”
From coach Matt Nagy on down, the Bears are preaching one game at a time, but deep down, they have to be thinking about making some noise in the postseason. They have an elite defense with a big pass rush and playmakers at every level, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack. And if the 23-16 victory against the Lions is any indication, coordinator Vic Fangio and his unit are getting acclimated to opponents’ strategies to neutralize Mack, Hicks and the pass rush. The Bears’ defense is not a one-trick pony.
On offense, the Bears aren’t elite, but they’re trending in the right direction behind Nagy’s inventiveness and aggressiveness and with enough weapons to keep defenses off-balance — presuming Mitch Trubisky gets healthy and stays healthy. Trubisky has a long way to go and is prone to ill-advised throws. But even at this formative stage, he’s already an upgrade from Good Rex/Bad Rex or the Jay Cutler Experience. Which of the three would you want to lead this Bears team into the playoffs?
The Bears still have to get there, of course. After the five consecutive wins, they’re the team to beat in the NFC North and are expected to make it now. Can they handle success?
“We’re prepared,” said safety Eddie Jackson, who came of age in the spotlight at Alabama. “Coach Nagy does a great job of keeping everyone’s mind off that. Blinders and earmuffs. That’s one of the things he says — blinders and earmuffs. No peeking. We’re really buying into that.
“No one’s getting complacent. One thing this team feeds on is we’ve been the underdogs for so long, we’ve been talked down for so long [that] we have the saying, ‘We’re all we got.’ We just focus on that: ‘We’re all we got.’ We really don’t buy into the talk, believe it or not. No one’s buying into the hype. Everyone comes in like we just lost the last game — practicing hard. If we keep that going, it’s going to be a sight to see.”
2 The Bears are on pace for an interesting postseason scenario in which they could play the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 17 and again in a wild-card game at Soldier Field the next week.
The last time that happened was in 2012, when the Packers lost to the Vikings 37-34 in Week 17 at the Metrodome, which cost them a first-round bye and dropped them to the No. 3 seed and a rematch with the Vikings at Lambeau Field the next week. The Packers won the playoff game 24-10.
Teams have met in Week 17 and the playoff opener 10 times since 1990. The home team is 8-2 in the playoff rematch. Only three times has one team swept both games.
3 Did You Know? Dave Wannstedt is the last Bears coach to win a playoff game on the road — beating the Vikings 35-18 at the Metrodome after the 1994 regular season.
Since then, the Bears are the only team in the NFL that has not even played a road playoff game, let alone won one. The Bears are 3-4 in the postseason — 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2010 — with every game at Soldier Field, except for Super Bowl XLI.
4 Is it too early to assume the Bears will make the playoffs? In the last 20 seasons, 53 of 57 teams (93.0 percent) that were 8-3 made the postseason. The four that did not: the 2014 Eagles (finished 10-6), the 2012 Bears (10-6), the 2008 Jets (9-7) and 2008 Buccaneers (9-7).
5 The List: Twelve defensive players have made the Pro Bowl for the first time with Fangio as their coordinator or position coach: NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Eric Reid with the 49ers; linebacker Lamar Lathon with the Panthers; and linebackers Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Renaldo Turnbull with the Saints. In fact, all but Bowman and Swilling have only made the Pro Bowl under Fangio.
That list figures to grow this season, with Hicks, Jackson, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Goldman and Danny Trevathan among the Bears’ candidates to make the Pro Bowl for the first time.
6 The Bears clearly are enjoying the moment — and not just with touchdown celebrations. In the locker room after the game Thursday, left tackle Charles Leno Jr. half-jokingly insisted I talk to rookie guard James Daniels about the game-clinching play in which Daniels pulled Tarik Cohen past the first-down marker on a 10-yard run. And he even conducted the interview:
Leno: “James Daniels — how does it feel to make the game-winning block in a very tough situation when you knew you needed to get it?”
Daniels: “I just went back to my fundamentals. I knew the play. I knew that everybody on the team was going to do their job. The only thing I was trying to do was my one-eleventh and do my job and make the block. That’s what I did.”
Leno’s point was well-taken: Daniels, continuing to make progress as a new starter, deserved recognition for going all out to get the job done.
7 Sign of Progress: The Bears have trailed for only 124 minutes, 34 seconds out of 670 total minutes this season (18.6 percent). That’s the second-fewest in the league — less than the Saints (126:53) and Rams (166:31) and just more than the Chiefs (124:03) among the best teams in the NFL.
8 It’s probably a good thing the Bears weren’t playing Sunday under what would have been miserable conditions. But they face potentially inclement conditions in their next three games — the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday and the Rams (Dec. 9) and Packers (Dec. 16) at Soldier Field. Nagy thinks his team can handle it.
“I think that goes to how we built this team,” Nagy said when the weather turned cold earlier in November. “You want to be able to win different ways. If you get stuck in winning the game one way every week, then you’re in trouble if they shut that down.
“We’ve done a pretty good job at getting to a point where different guys can win games for you. Whether it’s through the run or the pass offensively or whether it’s on defense, shutting down the pass or shutting down the run. I like where we’re at. Whatever the weather forces us to do, we’ll try to have a plan for that.”
9 Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week Award: Eagles cornerback De’Vante Bausby, making his first NFL start, had six tackles in a 25-22 victory against the Giants. Bausby, an undrafted free agent from Pittsburg State, played in four games with the Bears in 2016. Former Bears defensive backs Corey Graham and Cre’Von LeBlanc also played key roles as the Eagles held Eli Manning to 61 passing yards in the second half.
10 Bear-ometer: 11-5 — at Giants (W); vs. Rams (L); vs. Packers (W); at 49ers (W); at Vikings (L).