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Meandering or marching? Here’s how the 2020 Bears can make a serious playoff run

The Bears’ 4-1 start is good enough to put them well on course for a playoff berth, especially now that there are seven spots in each conference. But why stop there? Here’s how they could emerge as a legitimate contender.

Tashaun Gipson (38) celebrates his game-sealing interception with Bears stars Khalil Mack (52) and Roquan Smith (58) and fellow safety Deon Bush (26).
| AP Photos

The Bears’ surprising 4-1 start has them several steps down the road toward the playoffs already. While Week 6 feels awfully early to punch their ticket to the postseason, they could probably meander through the rest of the season at 5-6 and still get there.

That’s actually exactly how the Bears finished last season, and if that team could do it, so can this one. Barring a total implosion, which is unlikely considering how good their defense is, the Bears should be able to find at least five or six more victories to reach the playoffs.

They certainly haven’t looked like a team that would win 80% of its games and any of those wins could’ve flipped. Any team that plays the way the Bears have — mainly on offense — couldn’t be shocked to be 0-5, but here they are with the gift of a 4-1 record.

“That’s exactly right: For us to be 4-1 and play the way we’re playing offensively... they’re not pretty,” coach Matt Nagy said. “Where you stay excited is that you are 4-1, because in the end that’s what matters. You want it to look better. That’s what we’re working towards right now and that’s what we’ve got to get to as soon as we can.”

Another win Sunday at the Panthers would give the Bears their best start since 2012, and over the last three decades, 83% of 5-1 teams went on to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Bears, their 2012 crew did not, but they would have if there were seven spots in each conference like there are this season.

The Bears, however, would say they aren’t content to be just another playoff team sitting there to be conquered by the NFC heavyweights on their way toward the Super Bowl. They aspire to be a real contender.

Is that realistic? It is if these five things go their way:

Clobber inferior teams

The Bears could make a significant statement about where they’re headed by making the Carolina game an open-and-shut case. Serious teams thump opponents like the Panthers, who are 3-2 but haven’t beaten anyone good.

Take a look at some of the other tackling dummies lined up for the Bears: the Vikings (1-4) twice, the Lions (1-3), the Texans (1-4) and the Jaguars (1-4). Beating the Panthers and taking four of those five is all it would take to guarantee the Bears a winning record.

That’s only the baseline, though. Any mediocre NFL team can pound away on the lightweights. The next step for the Bears to prove their legitimacy is to trade punches with teams like the Rams, Saints and Titans — their next three opponents, in order, after playing the Panthers.

Foles gets rolling

Every team that has counted on Nick Foles has been in for a wild ride. He can run the spectrum from best player on the field, as he was during the Eagles’ championship run and when leading the Bears’ comeback over the Falcons in his debut, to totally ineffective.

That’s going to be a hard way to live for the Bears. There are signs, however, that point toward Foles leveling off. His completion percentage has gone up every game, rising from 55% to 71%, and this week was his first real chance to settle in as the Bears’ starter.

They aren’t asking him to be the MVP of the league. What they need is something along the lines of what he gave the Eagles over 18 games, including the playoffs, in 2017 and ’18: 67% completions, 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and a 93.1 passer rating.

Feast on takeaways

What was the difference between the very good Bears defense of 2019 and the exceptional, world-class, championship-level Bears defense of the season before? Takeaways.

The 2018 Bears led the NFL with 36, the most since the 2015 Panthers, and a big reason for it was that they were third in the NFL with 50 sacks. The Bears had barely more than half that at 19 last season. They also dipped from 100 quarterback hits to 79.

The current version of the Bears’ defense, is somewhere in between. Realistically, that won’t be sufficient to overcome their offense’s shortfalls. The upside for the Bears is that the combination of Robert Quinn, Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks looked like it was starting to click in the win over the Buccaneers. A more ferocious pass rush will bring more takeaways.

Find a run game

Nagy seems to enjoy talking about having a running game more than actually having a running game. That needs to change.

It needed to change a year ago, but the Bears still sit 27th in yards per game and 16th in yards per carry. They’re at 2.1 yards per carry over the last two games. They’ve chucked the fourth-most passes in the NFL, which isn’t the smartest idea who their quarterbacks are.

Curiously, the Bears appeared to have little or no interest in free agent Le’Veon Bell, a two-time all-pro who was cut by the Jets this week and signed with the Chiefs. He’s the type of dual threat they lost when Tarik Cohen tore his ACL, and David Montgomery hasn’t been able to add that role to his job description.

What chance has Montgomery had, though, with 10 carries each of the last two games? He has had fewer than 20 rushes in 17 of his 21 career games. Nagy needs to stay patient and give him more consistent opportunities to show he can be the dependable primary back they drafted him to be.

Competition stumbles

Where exactly are all the giants of the NFC? As of now it looks like the Packers at 4-0 and Seahawks at 5-0. Everyone else is just OK.

A world of “just OK” teams is a world where the Bears can make something happen. The Saints are 3-2 after an overtime escape, and the Bears just knocked the Buccaneers to 3-2. The Vikings are a disaster. The entire NFC East is rotten — and how seriously should anyone take the 4-1 Rams when all four of their wins came against that division?

There’s an opening for one of those second-tier teams to move up in weight class. And, more than anything any of their peers have, the Bears’ defense has the potential to vault them there.

If their defense accelerates from good to great and Nagy somewhat straightens out his offense, the Bears can get back to what they were his first season: A flawed, but dangerous team.

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