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NFL Playoff primer: What you - and Bears - should be watching

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NFL Playoff primer: What you - and Bears - should be watching

The Bears have something of an informed perspective on the 2015 playoffs: They played five of the eight wild-card teams this season, plus the Cincinnati Bengals in the third preseason game (“the best roster we’ve seen,” said one Bears coach), and two (Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals) of the four top seeds.

Extend it through a portion of last season and the list expands to include the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots. Not that simply playing teams is necessarily any sort of “tell,” since the Bears were 2-9 in the games played against the current elites.

But several constants run through the playoff teams, slightly different ones from some other postseason collections. How these teams win is worth closer looks. The NFL may be a copycat league, but that’s not altogether a character flaw; if something works, of course you learn from, borrow and adapt it.

Complementary wins

It was noted previously that, for Bears’ drafting and free-agency purposes, strong defense remains a constant. No AFC playoff team ranks worse than No. 11 (Pittsburgh) Steelers in points allowed. Only the Green Bay Packers (12th) and Washington Redskins (17th) are out of the top seven, and one of those two will be gone after Sunday.

[MORE BEARS: Playoff field provides lessons for Bears: Draft defense high, Cutler backup]

But coach John Fox is among those placing great stock in complementary football, not simply each unit playing its best, but also manage their playing styles in ways that benefit the other units.

Not infrequently, teams have been able to reach the playoffs with one dominant unit. The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Bears in the 2006 Super Bowl despite a defense that ranked just 23rd in points allowed. But Peyton Manning and his offense were No. 2 in scoring and No. 3 in yardage. The Bears that year were tied with the Colts in scoring per game, but that was inflated by five Devin Hester return touchdowns and three other defensive touchdowns. Ultimately the Colts and Manning were able to overwhelm the Bears.

This year fully half of the playoff teams (Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, New England, Arizona, Carolina and Cincinnati) rank in the top 10 in both scoring points and fewest points allowed.

Ball security wins

Of the 12 playoff teams, only one (Denver, minus-4, same as the Bears) has a negative turnover ratio. The difference for the Bears is that their defense ranked 20th in points allowed; the Broncos were fourth, including No. 1 rankings in six major defensive categories. The Bears had none better than No. 4 in passing yards allowed.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Of the 12 starting playoff quarterbacks, only Ben Roethlisberger and Manning, who both went through injury riddled seasons, had interception percentages higher than 2.0.

Jay Cutler began eliminating interceptions from the first day of training camp and went into Week 17 against the Detroit Lions at a rate of 1.7 percent before throwing three picks, not all on Cutler by any means, left him at a very respectable 2.3 percent for the season.

That part of the Chicago structure is very much pointing in the right direction. 

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.