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Bears arrive at pivotal stretch in quest to prove they can contend in murky NFC

Currently No. 2 in the conference, the Bears could be anywhere from first to sixth by the end of this week.

Roquan Smith and the Bears face the Rams (4-2), Saints (3-2) and Titans (5-0) the next three weeks.
Roquan Smith and the Bears face the Rams (4-2), Saints (3-2) and Titans (5-0) the next three weeks.
Kyusung Gong/AP

In the next three weeks, the Bears could solidify their status as an NFC contender or free fall out of the playoff field entirely.

A string of narrow escapes and furious rallies has them 5-1, second only to the Seahawks in the conference, and where they go from here is unpredictable. If they lose to the Rams on Monday and the Saints after that, they could drop all the way to eighth heading into a game against the undefeated Titans.

But they might win any or all of those, too.

Sure, the Rams are a home favorite thanks to their 4-2 record and a top-10 defense, but all their wins are against the pitiful NFC East. And the Saints have been a perennial powerhouse, but they’ve scuffled with close calls against the Lions and Chargers.

Aside from the Seahawks and Packers, it’s murky as to who is actually good in the NFC.

That’s nice for the Bears, who aren’t sure whether they’re good, either. Matt Nagy seems to be arguing both sides lately. Within one answer to a question Monday about the overall direction of his team, Nagy said the Bears “completely know” how awful the offense is right now and that it’s not viable going forward, but also, “I love where we’re at right now as a team.”

It’s hard to make sense of that, but here’s what he probably means: As badly as the Bears have played, they’re in prime position at 5-1.

Over the last three decades, teams that started 5-1 made the playoffs 83% of the time, and that was with six spots in each conference instead of the current seven. That means the Bears can probably go 5-5, or maybe even 4-6, from here and get in.

And with some thought-to-be-strong NFC teams slipping, there’s a big opportunity for the Bears. The Saints don’t look as scary as they did the last few seasons. They know Tom Brady’s Buccaneers are beatable because they just beat them. The 49ers, a Super Bowl team last season, are 3-3.

And then there are the Vikings, who have plummeted to rock bottom.

They had the fifth-best record in the NFL over the previous five seasons at 50-29-1, but are 1-5 after being clobbered by the Falcons. So not only do the Bears not have to worry about battling them for a spot, they get to play them twice (Weeks 10 and 15).

Nobody in the NFC East is good, it seems, and that’s enticing to the Bears as a potential wild-card team. A column in Defector laid out a scenario in which the Eagles could win that division at 4-11-1. Imagine opening the playoffs against a team like that.

But as sunny as all that sounds, it could go the other way on the Bears just as drastically and quickly. They’ve survived solely because of their defense, and if that unit ever gets in a rut or loses a couple starters, the plunge will be harsh.

At just one game worse than the Bears, the Rams sit seventh in the NFC. A loss to them Monday coupled with a cocktail of results Sunday in other games would drop the Bears to sixth.

They’d avoid falling to seventh because they’ve got a sparkling 5-0 conference record — something Nagy pointed out after squeaking by the Panthers.

“What are we, 5-0 in the conference?” he said, becoming perhaps the first coach in football history to mention that with 2½ months left in a season. “Those matter in the end when it comes down to conference records and tiebreakers.”

That’s perfect commentary on where his team stands. The Bears could run away from the mediocre middle ground of the NFC, or they could slide right back into it and be clinging to hope that enough tiebreakers go their way.