As the Bears have too often learned the hard way this season, it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. And in a game the NFL flex-scheduled to give the nation an uncluttered look at what are all but assured to be two playoff teams, the Bears seized control of their 2018 destiny with a 15-6 win in which they throttled the playoff-bound offense of the Los Angeles Rams in a way unseen to this point of the season.
The Bears (9-4) held a Rams team that had scored 30 or more points 10 times in 12 games and averaged 440 yards per game without a touchdown and to 214 total yards, fewest since the finale of the 2016 season, Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff’s rookie year. The Rams averaged nearly 15 points in their last three fourth quarters before Sunday. They were shut out when it mattered most by the Bears, the first time in nine games that the NFL’s No. 2 scoring-offense hadn’t scored in the final quarter.
That fourth quarter against a dominant Rams (11-2) offense may provide a pivotal, convincing learning step for a team still trying to close games they have in their control.
“I think we’ve had those moments where we didn’t finish and still came out on top,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who needed a break during his media get-together to calm down from the game. “[After] so many times this season, I think it finally hit home for us and we said, ‘We have been playing a great three quarters and giving up points in the fourth quarter.
“Imagine how good our defense would be statistically if we didn’t have the fourth quarters. That’s the lesson I take away from this.”
The Bears won a game with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky having his worst game as a professional, with a career-low passer rating of 33.3 on 16-of-30 passing for 110 yards with three interceptions and his only touchdown pass going to an offensive tackle.
In the process, the Bears put themselves in position of needing win just one in their final three games to clinch at least a wild-card berth. That could come next Sunday at home against a possibly reenergized Green Bay Packers team after the coaching change last week, who ended a four-game losing streak Sunday with a win over Atlanta.
The Minnesota Vikings visit the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night, matching up two of the three five-loss teams remaining (plus division-leading 8-5 Dallas), and the Bears hold a tiebreaker edge with a 7-2 mark in the NFC. If the Vikings lose, the Bears will hold a 2-1/2 game lead in the NFC North with three games to play.
“Our guys have worked hard to put ourselves in this position,” said head coach Matt Nagy. “It’s not easy. It started for just the belief at the very beginning, when we started in training camp, then you start having some different types of games, some different losses... .
“The stage wasn’t too big for them.”
Sunday night was not so much a rebound game from the upset loss last week to the middling New York Giants as it was using that defeat as a launch point.
“I think, if anything, that propelled us even more because we know what kind of team we are,” Hicks said. “We didn’t anticipate losing that game, so coming into this week, we put a lot more in the tank.”
That they put a lot more in the tank for the Rams hints at a team that is still learning that it cannot go into any NFL week complacent, which the Bears have done (Miami, New York) and even let off during games (Green Bay).
Coaches placed an enormous, almost apocalyptic focus on this game, players indicated. This was a night that represented a test kitchen for what the Bears have endeavored to become – a legitimate contender in the NFC to start with, and ideally beyond. Notably perhaps, with the burgeoning fascination with offense as the NFL has tilted the game in favor of that side of the football, the Bears tilted it back with defense, even with defense masquerading as offense for their only touchdown of the game.
What was highly anticipated to be a showcase for two of the NFL’s emerging stars at quarterback was anything but. Jared Goff generated a first-half passer rating of 21.0 on the strength of two interceptions. Trubisky would’ve been happy with that; the Bears quarterback was 9-for-20 with two of his own interceptions and rating of 12.5 for two quarters of wildly missing open receivers and looking every bit the young quarterback who’d been out for the past two games and was coming back from a throwing-shoulder issue.
“When you look at it numbers-wise,” Nagy said, “I think there were some throws -- some of the interceptions sailed on him a little bit. It wasn't his best game. You know, what I told him, I said, ‘Who cares?’ I mean, we're about winning the games.
"He knows that we can all play better. It's not all on him. So he's going to get better from it. We talked again with our team about the next-play mentality. These are the ones that you look back, for myself as a coach, for him as a quarterback, and you grow from.
"Again, as I've always said, when you win the game, it's a lot easier to critique and understand the why part, use it to help you down the road. In the end, do I care? Can we be better as an offense? Yes. Do I care about numbers? Not one bit.”
Trubisky did manage one touchdown pass, running his string of games with at least one touchdown pass to eight, excepting the two games missed with the shoulder strain.
Then again, somewhere general manager Ryan Pace may have been head-scratching, thinking that he’d spent much of the offseason and millions of McCaskey dollars getting his new head coach a whole passel of skill-position threats.
Then, against one of the top teams in the NFL, his coach instead trots out an entire squadron of behemoths – tackle Bradley Sowell, defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard, Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Roy Robertson-Harris – and has his quarterback throw to Sowell, whose sole contribution to NFL “offense” was an 11-yard kickoff return his rookie year (2012) as an Indianapolis Colt.
The Bears held defensive tackle Aaron Donald without a sack for just the second time in the Rams’ last 10 games and the Rams to just one total sack of Trubisky in a game that saw the Bears rush for a season-high 194 yards (101 by Jordan Howard), the most since the 232 against Cincinnati Dec. 10, 2017.
“We had a plan for [Donald],” Trubisky said. “[The Rams] got a good defense all the way around. We had a plan for Donald. The O-line did a great job keeping him in check all night. That's what we wanted to do.
“Obviously we had some turnovers, which falls on me. He didn't have any game-destructive plays that he usually causes. That's something that we definitely kept in the back of our minds.”
If there was a smudge on the glass it was another missed field goal by Cody Parkey, this from 38 yards in the fourth quarter when a conversion would have put the Bears up by 12 points instead of within reach of a Los Angeles touchdown and field goal.
The Bears can address and worry about that tomorrow. For now, “it's a great win for us,” Nagy said.
“I think more than anything, it's going to continue to keep letting our guys understand that every team in the NFL, every game is different. Last week against the Giants, that game is going to be different than the following week. There's so much parity.
“The belief of our guys. They hear me talk about it. But now to do it, for them to go out and do it, for a [Rams] team to only have one loss all year long in as far of the season as we are, it's so powerful for our guys now because it helps us grow with confidence, it helps us grow togetherness.
“When you teach that and you talk about it over and over and over as a culture, building everyone together as a family, then they do it, it just lights a fire. It puts us in a great position.”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.