Playoffs? Pro Bowl? Coach of the Year? Upstart Bears prepared to handle success
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The last time the Bears were above .500 after 10 games, they went into the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis at 6-4 in 2013 and allowed a 65-yard touchdown run by former Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin on a counter-reverse on the third play of the game, fell behind 14-0 eight plays into the game and lost 42-21.
With a withering defense, they were underdogs in five of their last six games and finished 8-8 to miss the playoffs.
The year before that, they were 7-3 but already on the downslide against a tough second-half schedule after a 7-1 start. They beat the Vikings at home but lost their next three games in a 1-5 stretch that all but ended their playoff hopes.
The year before that, they were 7-3 with a five-game winning streak but already doomed with Jay Cutler out indefinitely with a broken thumb he suffered in a victory over the Chargers. The Bears lost four consecutive games with Caleb Hanie and were done.
It’s a much different feeling this season, with the Bears 7-3 after beating the Vikings 25-20 on ‘‘Sunday Night Football’’ at Soldier Field. This team is on the upswing, with room for growth on both sides of the ball.
“I wanted them to enjoy every part of that game [Sunday night],” coach Matt Nagy said Monday. “I wanted them to soak it all in and have that feeling. We grew stronger. We became closer in so many ways. From me, standing on the sideline watching the guys support Cody [Parkey] after he made that kick. And then seeing the way they reacted to him when he broke the huddle down in the postgame. It’s genuine. That to me is what I pulled from that thing — just our guys bouncing back from adversity. Our team working together.”
Around the league, fans, experts, pundits, oddsmakers — and surely opponents — are taking notice. Despite having to travel for an 11:30 a.m. game after playing Sunday night, the Bears are four-point favorites on Thanksgiving against a Lions team that is 4-6 but just beat the 6-4 Panthers at Ford Field. The last time the Bears were favored in a Thursday road game was 1991 against the 1-5 Packers. (They won 10-0 behind Jim Harbaugh as three-point favorites at Lambeau Field.)
Nearing the homestretch with a 1½-game lead in the NFC North and a playoff berth in full view, the Bears will deal with their latest obstacle — success. The Bears are an intriguing contender — they rank second in offensive points scored (25.8) and ninth in defensive points allowed (18.1). They’re not going to sneak up on anybody.
“Just like when you’re in the lows,” Nagy said, “when you win a few games in a row, we have to make sure we keep those blinders on, keep the earmuffs on, don’t listen to anything and just keep playing football.”
That could be easier said than done. No matter how much they insulate themselves from “outside noise,” they won’t be able to avoid talk about the playoffs, the Pro Bowl, postseason awards. The biggest opponent could be human nature.
Nagy says the Bears already are conditioned to ignore it.
“When it’s the other way,” he said, “and people are telling you how bad of a coach you are, how poor of a player you are and you should be cut and you should be fired, we don’t listen to it. So it’s the same thing when you’re having success. You don’t listen to it. You understand both sides. But we [only] worry about what’s said in this building.”