If Sunday’s 24-17 Bears win over the Green Bay Packers was not the beginning of the end of the Packers’ reign in the NFC North, and few realistically expect Aaron Rodgers to finish his career without a run at at least another division win, then it reasonably could be looked upon as perhaps the end of the beginning.
The end of the beginning, that is, for the Bears (10-4), who clinched their first division championship since 2010 – four head coaches, 10 starting quarterbacks and a couple of general managers ago. In the process they made a statement about what they believe they are building in just coach Matt Nagy’s first season as a head coach.
Their win firmed up their hold on the No. 3 NFC playoff seed, behind New Orleans and Los Angeles and two full games ahead of NFC East-leading Dallas (8-6).
“I’m really happy for this organization,” said cornerback Prince Amukamara. “The McCaskeys are probably so excited. They are going to have an even better Christmas. This was for the fans, this was for the organization, and we are glad that we were able to do it.”
Nagy, however, stressed another kind of “statement” the Bears took from this game.
“They finished,” he said of his players and their postgame thoughts, “but they know we’re not ‘finished’… . We’re a young team [and] we are set up for the right direction. We’re in a good spot and we knew that.”
The good spot is theirs; the not-so-good is for the Packers (5-8-1), Detroit Lions (5-9) and Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1), the last of which could play their way into facing the Bears in the first round of the playoffs, and all of which the Bears have defeated this season at least once.
Therein lies the bigger statement.
“New” NFC North starting to form
To start with, understand the sudden and full level of disarray within a division that for much of the last 25 years has had Green Bay as a fixture at its top, with occasional and inconsistent flare-ups on the parts of Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota.
This year, none of the Packers (2-4), Lions (2-4) or Vikings (3-3) have a winning record for the second half of the 2018 season. The Bears are 5-1 and finished the year 7-1 at home.
Within less than the past 12 months, tremors have rocked Green Bay, from the dip in Rodgers’ performance – his 68.9 passer rating Sunday was his second-lowest against the Bears, a body of work that began in 2008 – to an in-season coach firing to upheaval and injuries throughout the roster.
The Lions, who lost Sunday at Buffalo, became the latest to try importing some of the Belichick mystique by hiring one of his top assistants. They have fared no better with Matt Patricia (from 9-7 in 2017 under Jim Caldwell to the former Bears billet as cellar-dweller) than Denver or Indianapolis did with Josh McDaniel, or Notre Dame, Florida or Kansas did with Charlie Weis, or the Jets and Browns with Eric Mangini, or the Browns with Romeo Crennel.
Minnesota early this year landed one of the supposed hot offensive wunderkinds when they hired Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to be offensive coordinator, then staffed up with a guaranteed $84 million over three years for quarterback Kirk Cousins. The Vikings fired DeFillippo last Tuesday, after a loss to Seattle that added to the body of evidence that Cousins cannot win so-called big games.
The current-sixth-seed Vikings stepped back from their own abyss with a 41-17 mashing of the Miami Dolphins and managed to stay within range of Seattle (No. 5 seed, 8-5).
QB tides shifting
One overarching issue in the division is the quarterback position, because the Bears’ rivals are stuck with their quarterbacks for the foreseeable future. Put another way, the Bears have arguably the only quarterback in the division who has some meaningful chance at getting better, who has genuine upside. How much is a discussable topic, but Cousins, Rodgers and Stafford are pretty much fully formed, which is not a positive.
Rodgers is in the late-Autumn of his distinguished career and seems to know it. “I understand a little bit more what it was like for [Brett Favre] to be 36, 37, in the locker room,” Rodgers said, “feel close to the trainers and some of the equipment guys because all the guys you kind of grew up playing with are gone.”
Stafford has taken the Lions to exactly three postseasons in his 10 NFL years and proceeded to lose all three of his first-round playoff games. Cousins has lost his only two playoff starts and got Washington into just one postseason as the starting quarterback in the last five years.
Mitchell Trubisky? With Sunday’s win over the Packers, the Bears have won four straight division games and beaten all three division opponents, not to mention the Los Angeles Rams. Trubisky outplayed Rodgers on Sunday, with 20-for-28 passing, 2 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 120.4 rating, vs. Rodgers’ 25-of-42 for 274 yards but zero touchdowns and only his second interception of the season.
Trubisky, who rebounded superbly from a three-interception performance last Sunday night vs. the Rams, already has a better record as a starter this year (10-4) than he did his final year at North Carolina (8-5) and his trend line is decidedly upward.
“When you have this [Bears] defense and you’re able to play with such a great defense and have that field position, protect the football and not throw interceptions, we’re always going to have an opportunity,” Nagy said. “So for Mitch to come into this game and play the way he did and hit a little adversity here and there and learn, I was excited about that.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears and stream the ‘Football Aftershow’ easily on your device.