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What separates the Bears and Rams? The difference that meant a Super Bowl berth

ATLANTA — First, the good news: The Bears can squint their eyes Sunday and imagine themselves in the Super Bowl next year. No team in the NFL has followed a path more similar to that of the NFC champion Rams than the Bears, though they’re a year behind.

The Bears drafted Mitch Trubisky No. 2 overall a year after the Rams took Jared Goff first. In the months that followed, each team named a dynamic, young offensive coordinator to be its head coach. The Bears hired Matt Nagy a year after the Rams tabbed Sean McVay. Both coaches bucked tradition, sitting players in the preseason to keep them healthy. They brought in defensive gurus and let them run that side of the ball. Their general managers were aggressive in trades.

Teams tried to find the next McVay this offseason, too. On Thursday, Bears tight end Trey Burton pointed to 35-year-old Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, who will become the Bengals’ head coach after the  Super Bowl. The Packers hired 39-year-old play-caller Matt LaFleur to be their head coach, too. The Cardinals hired 39-year-old former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, while the Browns named former interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, 44, their new head coach.

“I think McVay, I think [Eagles coach] Doug Pederson, I think Nagy, they’re the new breed of coaches,” Burton said. “You’re getting guys who know how to work with young adults, guys who are just getting into the league, and, for the most part, grooming young quarterbacks. They know how to shape, they know how to mold these guys.”

The Bears beat the Rams in December. | Associated Press

Now, the bad news: What separates the Rams and Bears might very well be the reason McVay’s players practiced Thursday and the Bears spent their third week at home.

Here’s what separates the two teams and how the Bears can try to close the gap this offseason:

The proven defensive coordinator

Only 33, McVay employs a defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, who is more than twice his age. The two have different personalities — Phillips is more relaxed — and experience levels. It works.

“Just based on the inexperience I do have, you feel so fortunate to be surrounded with guys like Wade Phillips,” McVay said this week. “You can’t put into words how important he’s been.”

The same could have been said of Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Nagy can’t lean on him anymore, though. He’s the Broncos’ head coach.

With only a year of experience as a coordinator, will Fangio’s replacement, Chuck Pagano, fill the role of sage defensive guru? Will Pagano’s head-coaching experience help or hinder Nagy as he navigates through his second season? The dynamic will be compelling to watch.

A running-game identity

Nagy never really figured out the rhythm of his running game, which finished 27th in the league with 4.1 yards per carry. The Rams were third with 4.9.

Todd Gurley’s NFC title-game no-show notwithstanding — he had four carries, leading many to wonder about his knee — he dominated for most of the season. Only Saquon Barkley averaged more than Gurley’s 4.9 yards per carry while also recording more than his 256 attempts. No one in the league ran for more touchdowns than Gurley’s 17.

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Almost as impressive, though, was how the Rams ran with Gurley out. They signed veteran C.J. Anderson on Dec. 18. He ran for 167 yards five days later and has totaled 466 yards on 82 carries in his four games since.

The lesson: A running-game identity and attitude can transcend even the most dominant rushers. The Bears might look to upgrade from Jordan Howard or have another player join him in the backfield. They know, though, that their rushing issues can’t be solved by one player.

They’ll need better blocking — and, yes, a more willing play-caller.

A steady kicker

Blame Nickell Robey-Coleman — a decade from now, fans will remember the Rams’ pass-interference-flag-that-wasn’t more than the way the NFC title game ended.

Greg Zuerlein made an astounding 57-yard field goal to beat the Saints in overtime. He kicked four in the game, including a 48-yarder with 15 seconds left to force overtime.

That came after he hurt his plant foot while slipping on a turf-covered metal plate at halftime. It ached, but “not enough to stop from playing,” Zuerlein said.

The injury has bothered him since. Zuerlein did not practice Thursday but is expected to kick Friday.

“We’re right on track,” McVay said.

Had the Bears’ Cody Parkey made his 43-yarder against the Eagles, the Bears might still be alive. They won’t be able to replace him with someone as accomplished as “Legatron” this offseason, but focusing on a strong-legged kicker for the elements is a good place to start.