Chicago Bears, playoffs, 2017 – where are you?
"Playoffs? Don't talk about—playoffs?! You kidding me? Playoffs?!... .” Jim Mora, Indianapolis Colts coach, 2001.
“I do expect [the Bears] to be in the playoff conversation come mid/late December,” Chris Simms to NBC Sports Chicago.
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Josh Sitton was a Pro Bowl Green Bay guard when the 2015 Packers began that season going 1-2, at which point quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a radio interview gave Green Bay fans a simple word of advice:
“R-E-L-A-X,” said Rodgers, who’d uncharacteristically completed less than 60 percent of his passes in the previous two games.
The stress-reduction suggestion appeared to work somewhere, since the Packers rolled off 10 wins in their next 11 games on their way to an overtime loss in the NFC Championship game to eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle.
It’s obviously easy to relax when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback: “It’s about the confidence that comes from winning,” said Sitton, a first-team All-Pro that season and one of the obvious reasons Rodgers was relaxed. “Winning is a habit, and people start buying in more and more when they start winning. That’s human nature.”
The Bears at 3-5 likely aren’t going to be issuing any “R-E-L-A-X” dictums. But neither are they treating the second half of this season as just games.
Even without a culture reinforced by winning over the recent past, a winning mentality and belief “is possible, absolutely,” Sitton said. “You can see the difference around here, the way we’re playing. Guys believe. Guys are buying in. That comes with a couple wins in a row, and a couple games we lost, we know we could have won those games.”
(Sitton has been here before: The Packers were 2-2 in Rodgers’ first four starts, with Sitton a rookie guard that season. The Bears are 2-2 in Mitch Trubisky’s first four starts, for anyone who’s keeping score.)
Math being what it is, the Bears at the midpoint of their season do have playoff possibilities. The reason is simply that they have turned something around since the woeful start behind Mike Glennon, although the Bears were within a couple dropped Glennon passes of upending Atlanta in Week 1. They have won two of their last three games and own wins over Pittsburgh (6-2) and Carolina (6-3).
“You can just see the upside he has, you know, especially in the huddle, the intangibles like the leadership he has,” said running back Tarik Cohen. “You can feel that in the huddle, just feel that he's going to make the play and if you listen to him he'll lead you to the right … and the promised land.”
Which could be excused as hyperbole around a rookie quarterback who isn’t completing half his passes, but Cohen’s a rookie, too, so… .
Since 1990, Elias Sports Bureau reports that nine teams have started 3-5 and reached the playoffs. In seven of the last eight seasons, the NFC North has sent a wild card to the playoffs with at least five losses, four times with six losses. The margin of error is slim given the Bears’ five losses already, but far stranger things have happened.
“Hopefully we can stay a little bit more consistent as far as lineups,” coach John Fox said. “We have to be right on top of it. When we are, we win. And we’ve lost some close games, we’ve won some close games. I’d rather see that be more consistent in the second half.”
But the simple fact of the matter is that the Bears ARE within sight of the playoffs. And if there’s a team other than the Philadelphia Eagles, perhaps maybe the L.A. Rams based on sheer points production, that’s run away from the pack, you’ll need to make that case.
Because the Bears have beaten the Steelers and had potential game-winning possessions against Minnesota (6-2) and New Orleans (6-2). Blame parity or whatever, but the leaders aren’t out of sight up ahead of the Bears.
With that as context, NBC Sports Chicago is happy to provide this Viewers Guide to the Bears’ 2017 second half:
Week 10: Green Bay Packers (4-4)
The Bears are favored this time, not shocking given the projected absence of Rodgers. The only time the Packers faced the Bears without full-metal Rodgers was the first Bears-Packers game of 2013, when Rodgers went down and out early from a Shea McClellin tackle. The Packers couldn’t beat the Bears with Seneca Wallace that night, and Brett Hundley has a ways to go to reach Wallace’s level. W (Bears record: 4-5)
Week 11: Detroit Lions (4-4)
As abysmal as last season was, the Bears defeated the Lions in Soldier Field and did it with Jordan Howard rushing for 111 yards in his first NFL start, and with Brian Hoyer being the un-Jay Cutler (zero INT’s). Howard is the NFL’s No. 5 rushing-yardage leader and tied for third in first downs among backs. And Trubisky has sounded like he grasps the concept of ball security and the evils of giveaways. W (Bears record: 5-5)
Week 12: at Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)
This one will be a load. Carson Wentz is the template for trading up to No. 2 in the draft for a quarterback. Alshon Jeffery is happy in Philly. The Bears and Eagles are about equal defensively in yards and points allowed, but the Eagles are averaging 31.4 points per game; the Bears haven’t scored 30 points in even one game in nearly two full seasons (31 games). L (Bears record: 5-6)
Week 13: San Francisco 49ers (0-9)
The 49ers were one of the Bears’ three victims last season. They will likely defeat someone this year, just probably not the Bears in Soldier Field. W (Bears record: 6-6)
Week 14: at Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)
After missing the playoffs for only the second time in the last eight years, coach Marvin Lewis wasn’t given a contract extension last offseason, leaving him in the final year of his contract, a situation that could be matched next year by Fox and the Bears. The Bengals, perennial first-round losers in the playoffs, should be playing out the string right about the times the Bears show up. W (Bears record: 7-6)
Week 15: at Detroit (3-4)
The Bears haven’t won in Ford Field since 2012. This looms as a potential tipping-point game, possibly for both teams. L (Bears record: 7-7)
Week 16: Cleveland Browns (0-9)
So many jokes, so little time. W (Bears record: 8-7)
Week 17: at Minnesota Vikings (6-2)
The Bears had a chance to upend the Vikings in Trubisky’s first start. That chance ended with an interception leading to a game-winning Minnesota field goal. The Bears haven’t won in Minnesota since 2011. This won’t be in the snow at TCF Bank field but if the Bears hit town with a shot at the playoffs… . W (Bears record: 9-7).
(There – that wasn’t so hard, was it?)