Remember when Bears, Rams were peers? Then they took vastly different paths

They were two of the NFL’s best teams in 2018 with a combined record of 25-7. Since then, the Bears have plunged. Meanwhile, the Rams are in the NFC title game Sunday.

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The Rams rocked the Bears 34-14 in the 2021 season opener.

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The Bears spent all of last offseason claiming everything was fine.

Don’t worry, they said, about the alarming holes at left tackle and cornerback. And never fear, the competent veteran quarterback of their dreams was here. The best part, of course, was that Matt Nagy just knew the fourth year was when the offense finally would click.

It was perfectly appropriate that the Rams were the ones to expose all that fraud. They undressed every single one of the Bears’ lies and laid waste to the false hope in a season-opening beatdown that gave the national-TV -audience a clear-cut view of the truth: The Rams were the real thing, and the Bears weren’t even close.

Throughout the Bears’ backslide from their surprising success in 2018, the Rams provided a glimpse into an alternate reality of how they might have looked if they had gotten everything right.

What if the Bears had swung a deal for a game-changer at quarterback?

What if Ryan Pace hadn’t run out of moves to sustain the incredible defense that carried the Bears in 2018?

What if the coach the Bears hired actually was an offensive guru rather than someone who had to give up play-calling two years in a row?

Well, then they’d be the Rams.

The Rams have had the right answer at every turn since hiring coach Sean McVay in 2017, the year before the Bears chose Nagy, and now they’re one win away from playing in the Super Bowl as they host the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

No one would be shocked if they won it all. There’s no mirage, no empty promises with them. They are everything the Bears pretended to be.

In 2018, both were among the elite — the Bears because of an overwhelming defense and the Rams because McVay already had engineered an offensive machine even with Jared Goff at quarterback. The Bears’ 15-6 victory on “Sunday Night Football” was seen as a precursor to the NFC title game.

The teams went a combined 25-7, with the Bears falling on the “double doink” and the Rams running into the Patriots in the -Super Bowl. Both teams thought it was just the beginning. Only one was correct.

The Bears swooned to a 22-27 record over the next three seasons, including 5-18 against playoff teams, scored the sixth-fewest points in the NFL and fired Pace and Nagy. The Rams went 31-18 in that span, won a playoff game as a wild card last season and — still unsatisfied — went all in by trading for Matthew -Stafford nearly a year ago.

As the Bears shopped the clearance aisle for Andy Dalton, McVay was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, recruiting Stafford as the Rams put together a trade package that included two first-round picks. The Bears were interested, too, and oddly, Nagy was in Cabo when the deal went down. He was curiously squirrelly when that came up shortly before the opener.

“I think it might have been a coincidence,” he said.

The Bears pivoted from that idea to the moonshot of trading for Russell Wilson, hoping he instantly could fix all that ailed them. And that’s another key divergence between their path and the Rams’. Stafford catapulted them from good to great, but the Rams still would have been solid — and maybe even an NFC contender — even if they had been stuck with Goff. That’s because so many other parts of their team were in place.

Consider wide receiver Van Jefferson, for example. He had 50 catches for 802 yards and six touchdowns, and he’s probably better than anyone the Bears have. He’s the Rams’ third option behind Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. And longtime star Robert Woods tore his anterior cruciate ligament in November.

When Bears general -manager Ryan Poles draws up plans to surround Justin Fields with proper personnel, he should take a good look at what the Rams have done.

They’re an ideal team in the modern NFL — built to pass and stop the pass. Their defense is centered around seven-time All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron -Donald and outside linebackers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd.

Remember Floyd? Pace drafted him No. 9 overall in 2016, and he averaged 4.6 sacks in four seasons. He has 20 in his first two seasons with the Rams.

With that pass rush, the Rams were third in the NFL with 50 sacks and had the fifth-best opponent passer rating at 83.8. Predictably, that led to them -being third in interceptions.

And most important for their long-term viability, the Rams have McVay. He took a team that had gone 60-131-1 in its previous 12 seasons, and he has yet to finish worse than 9-7. The players will come and go, but he looks as if he will be their coach for at least a decade. That’s not just continuity for continuity’s sake. That’s finding the right coach and letting him do his thing.

As Poles and new coach Matt Eberflus try to steer the Bears out of a rut of getting it wrong at nearly every turn, this is what it looks like when a team gets everything right.

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