Bears

A significant first practice goes well for three Bears critical to 2018 success

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USA TODAY

A significant first practice goes well for three Bears critical to 2018 success

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — It’s a major Bears story until it isn’t, and in Friday's first practice of training camp ’18, the story was that Leonard Floyd, Kyle Long and Allen Robinson weren’t the story. 

Not even the weather was a story, as coach Matt Nagy continued the two-hour practice without interruption despite repeated torrential downpours. Whether this represented a soggy, wet chapter of Nagy’s campaign of physical practices and getting his team “calloused” is a question, but “It's just a part of what we wanted to do,” Nagy said, with a bit of a smile. “We weren't going inside. We were coming outside unless that (lightning/tornado) horn went off. So it was a good day. The guys fought through it.”

Getting through it was of franchise-grade import for three linchpins coming off significant injuries that cost them all or part of their 2017 seasons. All had been largely held out of minicamps and training camps, making Friday a de facto shakedown cruise for three players the Bears need at the elite levels projected for them.

Floyd practiced without the large brace he’d worn during minicamp work and which he admitted was an impediment to performance. Bears medical and training staff and Floyd have been pointing to this moment as the first step toward full health for the regular season.

“I basically, this whole offseason, I've been working on getting my leg right,” Floyd said on Friday. “I’m not really looking into who's playing where. I've been looking to get back healthy. ... Yeah, I'm able to go full force.”

Floyd’s pursuit speed was noteworthy as he ran down several offensive players with the football.

Players were not in pads, but Robinson similarly flashed, at one point making a difficult catch of a ball slightly behind him as he was tumbling to the ground. If he was holding anything back, it was not apparent in his cuts, routes and runs after catches.

“I feel great,” Robinson said. “It's been a process that we've taken a little bit slower, but I think that was for the best. It just was all about getting me ready for this time right here, so I feel great. I feel 100 percent.”

Long has been buffeted by injuries requiring surgeries over the past two years. The setbacks have taken him down from the Pro Bowl level at which he played his first three seasons.

But he turns 30 in December and is entering his sixth NFL season having missed 14 games the past two years after just one the first three.

“I’m feeling great,” Long said. “It’s really a lot of fun to get out here with my teammates and start camp without any limitations and be able to contribute from Day 1. It feels good. I spent a lot of time with our training staff. I got to know Andre Tucker really well, our new head trainer. He has done a tremendous job.

“You know, it’s Day 1 and I was out there at practice, and I got to hit other guys, and that was fun. I don’t look much into psychological hurdles. But a physical hurdle? Yes, it was. I had a lot going on this offseason. I’m just really happy to be out here.”

All was not good news physically for the Bears as inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and cornerback/special teamer Sherrick McManis were held out of practice after hamstring issues surfaced in their pre-camp physicals. Nagy said neither was considered serious but gave no timetable for their returns.

What’s at stake for the Bears in Sunday Night’s pivotal NFC North battle

What’s at stake for the Bears in Sunday Night’s pivotal NFC North battle

The Bears aren’t viewing Sunday night’s game against the Minnesota Vikings as an opportunity to make a statement. But this also isn’t just another game — it’s the Bears’ best opportunity to take control of a division in which they’ve been mired at the bottom for the last five years. 

“You could say whatever you want in these situations,” outside linebacker Khalil Mack said. “Ultimately, it’s all about getting a win — playing as a team and getting a win. You can’t really get too caught up in the hype. You gotta let that stuff roll off your shoulders and go out and ball, and that’s the mindset of this team, we’re going to go out and ball.”

The Bears enter Sunday with an 86.7 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders. Their chance of winning the division is 68.9 percent, and the most likely playoff seed they’re in line for is No. 3 (35 percent). The Vikings, meanwhile, have a 43.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, and only a 17.4 percent chance of winning the division.

If the Bears win, here’s how the top three in the NFC North would look:

Bears: 7-3
Vikings: 5-4-1
Packers: 4-5-1

The Bears would be 1 1/2 games ahead of Minnesota and 2 1/2 games ahead of Green Bay. But how could that play out with these teams’ remaining schedules?

Bears: 

@ Detroit (Thanksgiving)
@ New York Giants
vs. Los Angeles Rams
vs. Green Bay
@ San Francisco 
@ Minnesota

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and the Lions, Giants and 49ers won’t lose the rest of their games this year (especially at home). But at worst, the Bears can reasonably expect to win two of those three games against divisional bottom-feeders, and then one of three games against the Packers, Rams and Vikings. That almost seems like the worst-case scenario, and in it, the Bears get to 10-6. It’s easy to see how, with a win over Minnesota on Sunday night, 11-5 or even 12-4 could be in play. 

The Vikings, meanwhile, have a difficult road ahead:

vs. Green Bay
@ New England
@ Seattle (Monday night)
vs. Miami
@ Detroit
vs. Chicago

The Packers’ path is considerably easier:

@ Minnesota
vs. Arizona
vs. Atlanta
@ Chicago
@ New York Jets
vs. Detroit

But Green Bay probably can only afford one more loss. There’s a very real scenario in which the Bears knock the Packers out of playoff contention with a win at Soldier Field Dec. 16. 

As for the Vikings — a loss to the Bears Sunday night drops them to 5-4-1, though they could hang in the division race by taking two of three from that Green Bay-New England-Seattle stretch, then sweeping their final three games. 

The flip side to all this is what happens if the Bears lose: The Vikings would slide past the Bears into first place with a 6-3-1 record. It wouldn’t knock the Bears out of the NFC North race, not with the way each team’s schedule lines up. 

But psychologically, the effects of losing to the Vikings for the Bears could be longer-lasting than merely losing first place by half a game. Just as psychologically, the effects of beating the Vikings could have a longer-lasting impact than padding their lead in the division to 1 1/2 games. 

“We know it's a big game coming up,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “But all we've got to do is take care of our job. Do our job, block all the noise out and take care of business.”

Bears-Vikings is most tightly contested game of Week 11

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USA TODAY

Bears-Vikings is most tightly contested game of Week 11

With so much parity in the NFL, every week on the schedule has close matchups. This weekend, though, the Bears and the Minnesota Vikings are expected to play the closest.

NFL experts trying to predict Sunday night’s matchup are torn on who they think is going to win, but Chicago has the slight advantage according to NFL Pick Watch.

55 percent of experts are picking the Bears to extend their NFC North lead, the closest margin of predictions for any game this week.

Even Monday night’s contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams has a larger majority supporting Jared Goff and company at 60 percent.

The analytics are also in agreement in support of Matt Nagy in prime time. Microsoft Cortana, FiveThirtyEight, Number Fire and Pro Football Focus analytics are all among the majority picking the Bears.

Our own J.J. Stankevitz predicts they could have statement game to establish themselves as a legitimate contender this season.

Chicago is favored by a slight margin on Las Vegas sportsbooks, but in the battle for first place in the division, anything can happen.