Bears lead throughout, handle Panthers 23-16 to improve to 5-1 in trek toward playoffs

It was nothing amazing, but the Bears claimed a solid victory in which they never trailed. Considering how their season has gone, it was relatively drama-free.

SHARE Bears lead throughout, handle Panthers 23-16 to improve to 5-1 in trek toward playoffs
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Foles made his third start since taking over for Mitch Trubisky.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As exasperating as it was at times, this was progress.

The Bears led from start to finish and earned a relatively drama-free 23-16 victory Sunday against the Panthers. They’ve swerved and stumbled, but they’re 5-1 — their best start since 2012 — and atop the NFC North.

That means a team that benched its quarterback, has three starters out for the season and was a few plays away from starting 0-5 is on track for the playoffs.

‘‘I don’t want to take away the excitement from our team that we’re 5-1,’’ coach Matt Nagy said. ‘‘It’s really easy to say, ‘Man, we’re just looking for 50 points a game and get the run game going.’ And we need to. Trust me.

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‘‘The good thing is that we’re 5-1, and when we do get this thing clicking, it’s going to be a lot of fun.’’

In no way was this one fun. But it was a solid and decisive victory.

The essence of it was a painful but ultimately successful sequence that ended with the Bears scoring their first third-quarter points of the season, making them the last NFL team to do so.

They did it in the Bears-iest way imaginable.

From first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, as a chant of ‘‘Let’s go, Bears’’ rose from a solid delegation of fans amid the crowd of roughly 5,200, they sent running back David Montgomery up the middle twice for no gain before quarterback Nick Foles inched over the line in a rugby scrum.

It was grueling. It was inelegant. But it did the job and put the Bears ahead 20-6.

As for Foles, it was another topsy-turvy game to add to his collection. After three starts, he still hasn’t been a definitive upgrade over Mitch Trubisky. He wobbled to a final line of 23-for-39 for 198 yards, with a touchdown, an interception and a season-worst 70.2 passer rating.

He threw the interception in the third quarter — immediately after a forced fumble by safety Eddie Jackson and a recovery by defensive tackle Akiem Hicks gave the Bears the ball at the Panthers’ 22 — and it was inexcusable.

As he backpedaled 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage, Foles heaved a pass off his back foot that never had a chance, and Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn grabbed it easily.

‘‘It was a dumb interception,’’ Foles said.

If only he had realized that at the time. It was by far the worst of the Bears’ mental hiccups, but the entire game was littered with their trademark clumsiness.

After an interception by safety Tashaun Gipson minutes into the game set them up at the Panthers’ 7-yard line, the Bears bumbled through a one-yard pass and a two-yard run, then called a timeout and committed a delay-of-game penalty before Foles’ nine-yard pass to rookie Cole Kmet for Kmet’s first touchdown.

Nagy was livid.

‘‘I had to cool down a little bit on the sideline, to say the least,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re lucky we got that touchdown, I’ll just say that.’’

Whomever’s fault the penalty was, Nagy fired a shot with a sarcastic, ‘‘I guess it was a little loud.’’

That was the first of many infuriating miscues.

Late in the first quarter, on third-and-three, receiver Anthony Miller caught a pass at the first-down marker, then went backward to try for more yardage and was stopped a yard short.

Meanwhile, the running game was inept again, with the Bears averaging 2.5 yards per carry. Nagy called only three runs in the first quarter and four in the second, with Montgomery managing 13 yards on those.

The last run of the first half came from the Bears’ 25-yard line with two minutes left, no timeouts and the team hurrying to score. Whether Nagy called that or Foles audibled, it made no sense.

‘‘I understand we want to look at all the negatives and stuff, but . . . what’s pretty cool is that our defense played lights-out today,’’ Nagy said of a crew that had three takeaways, pressured Teddy Bridgewater into a 50.4 passer rating and allowed 3.9 yards per carry.

On top of all Nagy’s good vibes about his team’s potential, the Packers suffering their first loss and the Vikings’ ongoing collapse are equally important for the Bears. They’re a half-game ahead of the Packers and have mostly buried the 1-5 Vikings.

The Bears play five of their six NFC North games in the final eight weeks and might be in very good position by then.

‘‘We’ve got a chance to be an extremely good team,’’ receiver Allen Robinson said. ‘‘We haven’t really had that breakout, explosive game. But I definitely think that’s around the corner.’’

It’s always allegedly right around the corner. But as imperfectly as the Bears played, it was a small step toward something better.

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