1st-and-10: Bears’ path to the playoffs fraught with danger

A win and they’re in, but keep that back door open. The Bears, in fact, are 4-16 against the Packers in the final month of the regular season during the Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers eras.

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Bears safety Eddie Jackson (39) intercepted Aaron Rodgers in the end zone to all put seal the Bears’ 24-17 victory over the Packers in 2018 at Soldier Field that clinched the NFC North title. Jackson suffered an ankle injury on the 13-yard return and missed the Bears’ playoff game against the Eagles.

Bears safety Eddie Jackson (39) intercepted Aaron Rodgers in the end zone to all put seal the Bears’ 24-17 victory over the Packers in 2018 at Soldier Field that clinched the NFC North title. Jackson suffered an ankle injury on the 13-yard return and missed the Bears’ playoff game against the Eagles.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bears are fortunate to still control their playoff destiny after surviving a six-game losing streak. But the prospect of beating Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday is a little daunting.

This Week 17 finale has looked ominous ever since the Bears’ 2020 schedule came out. They have finished the last six regular seasons against either the Vikings (2014, 2016-19) or the Lions (2015), two NFC North rivals with similar vulnerabilities in clutch situations. But as Bears fans know, the Packers are a completely different animal. The bigger the game, the more daunting the challenge. The Bears, in fact, are 4-16 against the Packers in the final month of the regular season during the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers eras (1992-present). And that doesn’t include a 21-14 loss in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field in 2011.

Three of those four December victories were against Packers teams that were 3-11 (2005), 5-9 (2008) and 5-7-1 (2018) and had little or no chance to make the playoffs. The only time the Bears actually damaged the Packers’ playoff standing in a late-season showdown was in 2007, when coach Lovie Smith’s Bears whipped Favre and the Packers 35-7 at Soldier Field to cost the Packers the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

And, as it turned out, even that didn’t matter. When the Giants upset the top-seeded Cowboys in the playoffs, the Packers ended up playing all their postseason games at Lambeau Field anyway — including a loss to the Giants in the NFC title game.

Even the best Bears teams have had bad luck against the Packers in December. In 2006, Rex Grossman’s 0.0 passer rating in a dreadful Week 17 loss to the Packers was a harbinger of things to come in 2007, despite the Bears reaching the Super Bowl.

In 2010, the Bears had a chance to eliminate the Packers from playoff contention in Week 17 but lost 10-3 at Lambeau. It came back to haunt them when the Packers, given new life, beat the Bears in the NFC title game and went on to win the Super Bowl.

In 2018, the Bears beat the Packers to clinch the NFC North, but safety Eddie Jackson suffered a high ankle sprain on a game-clinching interception and missed the playoff game against the Eagles.

Yes, even beating the Packers late in the season has come with a cost. If the Bears defeat them Sunday and the Rams and Seahawks also win, the Bears will get a rematch against the Packers in a wild-card playoff game at Lambeau. Longtime Bears fans can pick the score of that game already.

2. Believe It Or Not Department: The Bears have not made the playoffs as a wild-card team since 1994 under coach Dave Wannstedt. They lost to the Patriots in Week 17 but backed in when the Cowboys and Cardinals also lost.

The last time the Bears won in the final week of the regular season to make the playoffs was — are you sitting down? — in 1979, when they topped the Cardinals 42-6 on the day George “Mugs” Halas Jr. died. They beat out the Redskins and former Bears coach Jack Pardee for the final wild-card spot by point differential.

3. Considering the importance of the game and the Packers’ knack for outplaying the Bears in key contests, quarterback Mitch Trubisky can solidify a claim to sticking with the Bears in 2021 with a standout performance Sunday.

Trubisky’s resurgence this season has come against teams ranked 32nd (Jaguars), 31st (Lions), 30th (Texans) and 27th (Vikings) in total defense. The Packers are seventh (though 16th in points allowed), and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, like Dom Capers before him, has won the battle more often than not.

For Trubisky, it will be a telltale rematch against the Packers’ defense. He threw three touchdown passes and had a 77.2 passer rating in a 41-25 loss in Week 12. But his rating was 45.6 before he led two garbage-time touchdown drives after the Packers took a 41-10 lead.

4. Trubisky is 1-4 with a 76.0 passer rating in five games against the Packers under coach Matt Nagy (six touchdowns, five interceptions). Only once has he had a passer rating above 77.2 — in the 24-17 victory at Soldier Field that clinched the NFC North title in 2018. Trubisky threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions for a 120.4 rating in that game.

5. A wide-open tight end is an indication of a good offense, and the Bears are getting there, albeit against poor defenses. Jimmy Graham scored two touchdowns Sunday against the Jaguars, but his 30-yard gain on a catch-and-run in the second quarter might have been the most positive sign for the improving Bears. There was nobody near him.

Signing Graham to a two-year, $16 million contract raised some eyebrows, but his recent production in a limited role the last three games has pushed him from the “miss” to “moderate hit” category for general manager Ryan Pace. He has 45 receptions, 451 yards and eight touchdowns this season, plus whatever mentorship he has provided for rookie Cole Kmet.

6. Graham’s eight touchdowns tie him with Greg Olsen (2009) and Mike Ditka (1963) for the most by a Bears tight end since Ditka had 12 as a rookie in 1961.

Led by Graham and Kmet (21 receptions, 202 yards, two TDs), the Bears’ tight end production in 2020 (76-698, 9.2 average, 10 TDs) has easily eclipsed last season’s (46-416, 9.0 average, two TDs). It’s the most since 2015 with Martellus Bennett, Zach Miller and Rob Housler (90-905, 10.1 average, eight TDs).

7. In five starts with Trubisky after seven with Nick Foles, the offense has made huge leaps in points (31st to third), yards (31st to ninth), yards per play (32nd to 10th) and rushing yards per game (32nd to fifth).

The revamped scheme that has sparked Trubisky doesn’t seem as well-suited for Foles. Does that make it tougher for Foles to step in should Trubisky suffer an injury?

“That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about that one,” quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said. “There’s only probably 10 to 12 plays that are really different for somebody else. So there are plenty of calls on that sheet that we have confidence that both guys can be successful with.”

Foles gets a bad rap because he played in the worst scenario — against four top-10 defenses and with an offensive line that was in flux. He, like Trubisky, would be much more effective in the current offense.

8. Malik Willis Watch: The Liberty quarterback overcame the rust of a four-week layoff triggered by his own positive coronavirus test to pass for 220 yards and rush for 137 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-34 overtime upset of previously unbeaten and 12th-ranked Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl.

Willis is just the third player to pass for 200 or more yards and rush for four touchdowns in a game since 2000 — and he’s in pretty good company with Lamar Jackson and Cam Newton at that.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd had two sacks in a loss to the Seahawks on Sunday to give him 9.5 for the season — more than triple what he had last season with the Bears (three). Floyd also has 18 quarterback hits and 11 tackles forloss. He had 12 quarterback hits and three tackles for loss for the Bears last season.

10. Bear-ometer: 8-8 — vs. Packers (L).

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