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First-and-10: Matt Nagy focused on Justin Fields — and winning

While Fields playing, learning and developing sounds prudent if Andy Dalton can’t go Sunday, don’t be surprised if Nagy ultimately plays the quarterback who gives the Bears the best chance to win.

Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields (1) completed 6-of-13 passes for 60 yards with one interception for a 27.7 passer rating in relief of Andy Dalton against the Bengals last week.
Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields (1) completed 6-of-13 passes for 60 yards with one interception for a 27.7 passer rating in relief of Andy Dalton against the Bengals last week.
Jeff Haynes/AP

Justin Fields vs. Joe Burrow figures to be a much more compelling duel the next time — in 2025, barring an unlikely Super Bowl matchup. But a moment in the game Sunday served as a preview, with the two young quarterbacks stepping up their games with a chance to win it.

It happened after Burrow had recovered from throwing interceptions on three consecutive passes to give the Bengals life in the fourth quarter. Including touchdown passes to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, Burrow was 5-for-6 for 128 yards and a perfect 158.3 passer rating (up from a sickly 33.3) in the quarter to cut the Bears’ lead to 20-17 with 3:39 left.

With a zoned-in Burrow primed to apply the dagger, it was Fields’ turn to respond. On a critical third-and-nine with 2:55 left, he dropped back, quickly scrambled, escaped a tackle attempt by Trey Hendrickson (with both hands on the ball this time — an improvement from the previous time Hendrickson got to him and forced a fumble) and scooted to his left for a 10-yard gain and a first down that helped clinch the game.

A suddenly red-hot Burrow against a suddenly vulnerable Bears defense would have been interesting — and nerve-wracking for Bears fans who have seen that movie too many times before. In a similar moment just six regular-season games ago, with the Bears protecting a 30-27 lead against the Lions on Dec. 6 at Soldier Field, Mitch Trubisky was sacked and lost the ball on a third-and-four play that could have clinched the victory. The Lions recovered with 1:48 left and won 34-30.

Fields found a way to win this time, a facet of his first extended playing experience that was as important as any dart he threw. Because if he starts in place of Andy Dalton against the Browns on Sunday, as expected, it’s likely he’ll have to keep the Bears in playoff contention to keep the job.

While many (if not most) Bears fans would settle for Fields spending the rest of the 2021 season playing, learning and developing, regardless of the team’s record, coach Matt Nagy might not go for that. From a job-security standpoint, the Bears making the playoffs is more valuable to Nagy than going 5-12 with a talented quarterback-of-the-future showing promise.

And the NFL landscape already looks as though it will keep middling teams in the running. Two weeks into the season, there are only seven unbeaten teams. The Bears (1-1) are tied for the eighth-best record in the NFL. With seven teams in each conference making the postseason and the current state of the NFL, it’s likely a .500 record will keep you in the hunt.

Nagy has said he’ll do ‘‘whatever is best for the Chicago Bears’’ in managing Fields. Whatever that means, his top priority is winning games; developing Fields is still No. 2. So Dalton can lose the job because of injury, but that likely only will happen if Fields is playing well — and winning.

2. If Fields starts against the Browns and Nagy eventually goes back to Dalton, he’ll point to Dalton’s encouraging performance against the Bengals. Dalton completed 9 of 11 passes for 56 yards and an 11-yard touchdown to Allen Robinson for a 118.2 passer rating.

And while his yards per attempt was an unimpressive 5.1, that doesn’t include 32 yards he gained on a pass-interference penalty on a throw to Marquise Goodwin. That would have bumped his yards per attempt to a more acceptable 7.3 and his passer rating to 125.0.

3. Fields’ inexperience showed in a relief appearance against the Bengals, but he had company Sunday. First- and second-year quarterbacks had a combined 58.8 passer rating in Week 2 (four touchdowns, 13 interceptions).

Experience makes a huge difference. Among starting quarterbacks who played complete games in Week 2, the top five in passer rating had an average of 159.8 career starts: Aaron Rodgers (192), Patrick Mahomes (48), Tom Brady (301), Russell Wilson (146) and Derek Carr (112). The bottom five had an average of 26.6 career starts: Jameis Winston (72), Zach Wilson (2), Trevor Lawrence (2), Burrow (12) and Josh Allen (45).

4. The Bears might not like the NFL’s emphasis on enforcing the taunting rule, but they’re indirectly responsible for it. Former Bears receivers Javon Wims and Anthony Miller were goaded into unsportsmanlike acts of violence in response to being taunted by Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson last season. And while the taunting rule itself seems silly, it’s that kind of escalation the league wants to curtail.

5. Left tackle Jason Peters played all 65 snaps against the Bengals after suffering a quad injury against the Rams. After two games, Peters is ranked ninth among tackles by Pro Football Focus — fifth in pass blocking and 30th in run blocking.

Peters suffered a dislocated finger on Fields’ fumble in the third quarter but popped it back into place and finished the game. At 39, he is the oldest player to start a game in franchise history.

‘‘It’s mind over matter,’’ Peters said. ‘‘When your legs start to fatigue, all I do is get down in my stance and talk to myself sometimes: ‘Get to your spot.’ Just doing stuff over and over and over. Your technique takes over when your body gets fatigued. If you don’t have the technique when you get fatigued, you’re gonna start getting beaten a lot.’’

6. With all the analytics available, using the NFL’s game-book defensive stats — sacks, interceptions, tackles for loss, quarterback hits, forced fumbles and fumbles recovered — to measure performance is crude. But they still tell the tale of the Bears’ response against the Bengals.

A week after the Bears had only six ‘‘impact’’ defensive plays against the Rams, they had 32 against the Bengals: four sacks, six tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits, three interceptions, eight pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. That was their most in a game since Nov. 11, 2018, when they had 36 in a 34-22 victory against the Lions at Soldier Field.

7. Roquan Smith is emerging as the Bears’ best defensive player and one of the best linebackers in the NFL. But second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson might be improving at an even faster rate.

Johnson had four pass breakups against the Bengals for a league-leading five after two games. Since the beginning of last season, Johnson’s 20 pass breakups (in 15 games) are tied for the third-most in the NFL.

8. Bits and pieces: The Bears are 0-for-5 on fourth-down conversions this season; the rest of the NFL is 39-for-81 (48.1%). . . . The Bears are seven-point underdogs against the Browns. Their last victory as ’dogs of a touchdown or more was against the Steelers in 2017, when they won 23-17 in overtime at Soldier Field. Their last road victory as ’dogs of a touchdown or more was against the Packers in 2015, when they won 17-13 at Lambeau Field. . . . Allen Robinson’s 59 receiving yards (on eight catches) are his fewest in the first two games of a season when he has been healthy. He had averaged 129.5 yards after Weeks 1-2 before this season. . . . Tight ends Cole Kmet (one reception, zero yards) and Jimmy Graham (0-0) combined for one target and zero receiving yards against the Bengals. ‘‘They need to be more involved,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘That’s my fault.’’

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Falcons running back/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson scored on a 10-yard run, caught a seven-yard touchdown pass and had a 27-yard kickoff return in a 48-25 loss to the Buccaneers.

10. Bear-ometer: 7-10 — at Browns (L); vs. Lions (W); at Raiders (L); vs. Packers (W); at Buccaneers (L); vs. 49ers (L); at Steelers (L); vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (W); vs. Cardinals (L); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (L); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (W).