First-and-10: Matt Nagy’s steady hand has Bears primed for strong finish
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The Bears are due for a letdown against the 4-10 49ers after letting it all out — on the field, after the final horn and in the “Club Dub” locker-room celebration that followed an emotional and monumental achievement — against the rival Packers at Soldier Field to clinch the NFC North title and the team’s first playoff berth since 2010.
But don’t count on it. The Bears have done an admirable job of navigating the emotional highs and lows of an NFL season under Matt Nagy, a tribute to their rookie head coach. Nagy has nurtured Mitch Trubisky, invigorated the Bears’ offense and stayed out of Vic Fangio’s way. But even more impressively, he has kept this team on an even keel. The Bears have had their weak moments, but they’ve maintained a mental toughness that has kept them in every game this season — losing by one, three in overtime, seven and three in overtime.
And only one of those losses ventures into the dog-ate-my-homework territory of excuses:
Packers — Nagy’s first game, Kyle Fuller dropped an interception which would have clinched it.
Dolphins — The “sun” game.
Outside linebacker Khalil Mack
playing on a sprained ankle.
Patriots — Gave up two touchdowns on special teams — a kickoff return and blocked punt. One yard from a tying touchdown on the final play.
Giants — Lost in overtime with Chase Daniel at quarterback.
In fact, the Bears are two games from becoming the first team in franchise history to not lose by more than seven points since the 1963 NFL champions under George Halas. Even Lovie Smith’s and Mike Ditka’s best teams faltered at least once in a glorious season.
That kind of consistency generally is an indication of the mental toughness it takes to succeed. In fact, in the previous 10 years, 10 teams have gone an entire season without losing by more than seven points. The nine that made the playoffs were a combined 13-5 in the postseason, with four teams reaching the Super Bowl — the winning 2013 Seahawks and 2010 Packers and the losing 2015 Panthers and 2013 Broncos.
One of those playoff teams that didn’t win at least one postseason game was the 2011 Packers (15-1), who rested Aaron Rodgers and other regulars in Week 17 before a bye and couldn’t shake off the rust in a 37-20 division-round loss to the Giants.
Nagy credited his players, but it’s his ability to keep finding messages that resonate that has made the biggest difference.
“All year long we’ve done a good job as a team of keeping focused on what we need to control and what we can control and then the players do it,” Nagy said. “I think that’s why we’re in all these games. When you have that, you ask that of your players and they respond that way, you’ve got to appreciate that.”
2. The “Andy Reid tree” narrative has worked for Nagy and the Bears so far. But the Reid connection doesn’t quite resonate the same way in the playoffs — Reid’s teams are 1-5 in the postseason with the Chiefs, including home losses to the Steelers (18-16) after the 2016 season and to the Titans (22-21) last season.
On the other hand, when it comes to postseason success, it’s historically better to be a branch of the Reid tree than the tree itself. While Reid never has won the Super Bowl, two coaches hired off his staff have — John Harbaugh with the Ravens in 2012 and Doug Pederson with the Eagles last year.
3. The Bears don’t have any players left from their last playoff team in 2010 — Robbie Gould was officially the last to go when he was cut before the start of the 2016 season.
But the Bears have 13 players with a combined 44 games of playoff experience, including four who have played in the Super Bowl — tight end Trey Burton won with the Eagles last season; linebacker Danny Trevathan won with the Broncos after the 2015 season and lost with the Broncos after the 2013 season; wide receiver Taylor Gabriel lost with the Falcons after the 2016 season; and cornerback Prince Amukamara won with the Giants after the 2011 season.
The others are Mack (Raiders), defensive end Akiem Hicks (Saints/Patriots), right tackle Bobby Massie (Cardinals), left guard Bryan Witzmann (Chiefs), cornerback Sherrick McManis (Texans), offensive lineman Bradley Sowell (Seahawks), long snapper Patrick Scales (Ravens), defensive tackle Nick Williams (Chiefs) and Daniel (Saints/Chiefs).
4. For What It’s Worth Department: The last team to hold Drew Brees without a touchdown pass at the Superdome is the Bears — a 20-12 loss to the Saints last season. The Saints are better this year, but so are the Bears, especially with Mack. If the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through New Orleans, the Bears shouldn’t be overwhelmed.
5. Signs of Progress: McManis was a liability when he was the starting nickel back early in 2015 before being replaced by Bryce Callahan. Now, in a much better defense, McManis is a productive, playmaking replacement for the injured Callahan.
While Rodgers was a little off Sunday, one of his best throws was thwarted by McManis. On a third-and-seven from the Bears’ 25 early in the third quarter, McManis leaped to deflect a well-thrown pass for Randall Cobb inside the 5-yard line. The Packers settled for a field goal that cut the Bears’ lead to 14-6. You know how that usually goes.
“I thought Sherrick McManis played lights out,” Nagy said. “Sherrick made one of the best plays of the game [against Cobb]. Usually that ball is completed . . . and Sherrick made a great play.”
6. The Bears are sixth in the NFL in points scored (27.4 per game), but even without the six defensive touchdowns, the offense still is 10th in the league in scoring (24.1) and ninth in net points scored (23.6), which accounts for points given away on interceptions and fumbles.
7. The Bears did not commit a defensive penalty against the Packers with Rodgers at quarterback this season. They had committed at least one defensive penalty — and as many as eight — in 20 games that Rodgers has started against them since 2008.
8. Jaire Alexander’s eight-yard pass-interference penalty against Allen Robinson was the Bears’ league-leading 12th pass-interference penalty they have drawn this season — for a league-high 218 yards. The Bears were 31st in the NFL last season with three defensive pass-interference penalties drawn for 30 yards.
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week Award: Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery won a spirited competition with eight receptions for 160 yards in the defending Super Bowl champions’ 30-23 upset of the Rams.
9a. Special mention: Robbie Gould was 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts — 28, 33, 45 and a 36-yarder to win in overtime — in the 49ers’ 26-23 victory over the Seahawks.
Gould — for those determined to lament the past when the Bears are 10-4 and in the playoffs — is 29 of 30 (96.7 percent) this season (with a long of 53) and 80 of 83 (96.4 percent) since the Bears cut him before the 2016 season. He is second on the NFL’s all-time list in field-goal accuracy (87.6 percent).
10. Bear-ometer: 11-5 — at 49ers (W); at Vikings (L); vs. Seahawks (W); at Rams (W); at Saints (L).