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Addition by division: Dominating the NFC North again will be the Bears’ biggest challenge

Repeating their 2018 division success (5-1) could be tough with the Vikings, Packers and Lions all potentially better this season.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Leonard Floyd (94) puts the heat on Aaron Rodgers in the Bears’ 24-17 victory over the Packers on Dec. 16 last season at Soldier Field. Floyd had two of the Bears’ six sacks as the Bears’ avenged a 24-23 loss at Lambeau Field in Week 1.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Beat Green Bay? For a Bears team with Super Bowl hopes, that’s just a start.

“Beat the Packers” is an old-school Bears-fan cliché. Lovie Smith famously made it his No. 1 priority when he was introduced as Bears coach in 2004. But it’s not foolproof. The last time the Bears swept the Packers, in 2007, they finished 7-9 and didn’t make the playoffs — it’s hard to find somebody who considers that a successful season.

But as NFL mantras go, winning division games is as real as it gets. The Bears’ renaissance last season from also-rans to Super Bowl contenders was fueled by a turnaround in NFC North games. The Bears were 0-6 against division foes in 2017, when they finished 5-11 in John Fox’s last season. They went 5-1 last year — losing only to the Packers in the season opener at Lambeau Field when they blew a 20-0 lead in the third quarter and lost 24-23.

In fact, in the first five seasons of the post-Lovie era, the Bears were 6-24 in division games before Matt Nagy’s arrival in 2018. It’s common sense that “four-point” games are huge in any sport, but nowhere more so than in the NFL.

Therein lies arguably the biggest challenge facing the Bears as they try to build on their rejuvenating 2018 season. The NFC North is picked by many as the toughest division in the NFL. Duplicating their 5-1 record in the division won’t be easy.

The Packers still have Aaron Rodgers and could get a Nagy-like boost from first-year coach Matt LaFleur — a former Sean McVay assistant. The Vikings still have a top-five defense (fourth in points and yards allowed), and Kirk Cousins can get hot at any time. And the Lions — a playoff team in 2016 — still have quarterback Matthew Stafford and are candidates to jump into playoff contention in Matt Patricia’s second season as coach.

On paper, there are no easy touches in the NFC North, giving the Bears fewer opportunities to take a deep breath. The Lions might be the best last-place team in the league. And if they take that second-year step under Patricia, they might not finish last.

But somebody has to, and, in what could be a tight division race, the Bears are candidates. Sports Illustrated, in fact, predicted the Bears will do just that — finish 7-9 and in last place in the NFC North. It’s hardly outlandish.

That’s where Nagy comes in. He showed a masterful touch when it came to guiding a team over the mental and physical hurdles of an NFL season in 2018. He had his team primed for big games while avoiding letdowns. The Bears were good in games after losses. They were good in prime-time games. They were good in division games. And when the Bears had to play three games in an 11-day stretch — all against division opponents — they won all three.

The Bears under Nagy also were better in rematches — a key to winning division games. They avenged the loss to the Packers and beat the Vikings and Lions the second time around. Being good certainly was a factor. But in the five previous seasons, the Bears were 5-10 against division opponents the first time they played them and 1-14 in the rematches.

Here’s a reminder for a team with big hopes: No team has ever reached the Super Bowl with a losing record in its division.

Only three teams have made it to the Big Game after going .500 in the division (the 2011 Giants, 2007 Giants and 2006 Colts all were 3-3). Staying ahead of the NFC North pack — including the Pack — is the Bears’ biggest challenge in 2019.