1. Win the game-wrecking battle.
This may be a trite, over-used classic piece of football analysis, but it’s especially true for Bears-Eagles: This game will be decided in the trenches. Both teams possess solid offensive lines and game-wrecking pass-rushing players all over the field.
So the question becomes: How effectively do the Bears shut down defensive tackles Fletcher Cox (10 1/2 sacks, 95 pressures) and Michael Bennett (nine sacks, 68 pressures)? “Wide nine” edge rushers Chris Long and Brandon Graham combined for 10 1/2 sacks this year, too. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz usually sticks to rushing his four defensive linemen while not sending many blitzes, so the onus will be on the Bears’ offensive line to handle a simple-yet-effective pass rushing scheme.
The good news is the Bears, collectively, have been excellent in pass protection this year. That starts with an offensive line that finished second in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency metric and should be boosted by getting right guard Kyle Long back for a full game. This group held Rams superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald to just one quarterback hit last month, which should give them confidence they can mute the impact of Cox and Bennett. And coupled with Mitch Trubisky’s knack for feeling and avoiding pressure and some quality pass protection contributions by Jordan Howard, the Bears will feel good about their ability to make sure the Eagles’ defensive line won’t wreck Sunday’s game.
The flip side to this: The Eagles’ is trending up, with center Jason Kelce, left tackle Jason Peters and left tackle Lane Johnson all playing some of their best football of 2018 to end the season. Right guard Brandon Brooks is a solid, Pro Bowl player too, and left guard Isaac Semualo appears healthy enough to return to the starting lineup. So this will be a Philadelphia offensive line at full strength, one that finished the year allowing just one sack to the combined trio of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Donald.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson, too, will have a plan for how to deal with Khalil Mack, be it through strategic double teams and/or quick passes by quarterback Nick Foles. If the Bears can consistently pressure Foles — as they’ve done to quarterbacks like Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins this year — they can force him to make some mistakes. If not, Foles and an impressive array of weapons can pick apart any secondary, even one as good as the Bears’.
Ultimately, the story of Sunday’s game will be if Cox, Bennett, Long and Graham make more game-wrecking plays than Mack, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, etc.
2. Field position and sudden change success.
During the regular season, Bears opponents began 128 drives from at or inside their own 25-yard line. The Bears forced more turnovers on those drives (24) than they allowed touchdowns (20). On average, teams ran 5.7 plays and gained 28 yards per drive, and nearly half of those drives ended in punts.
Narrowing down for games at Soldier Field, the Bears had nearly as many interceptions, fumble recoveries and safeties (11) as opponents had touchdowns and field goals (13) on drives of 75 yards or longer.
The point being: It’s incredibly difficult to sustain long drives against this Bears’ defense, especially in Chicago. And incredibly, the Bears only allowed one touchdown while picking off three passes on eight drives that began in their own territory at Soldier Field this year.
On average, these drives started at the Bears' 34-yard line and gained 7.6 yards on 4.0 plays. https://t.co/1Q9K8tlNmo— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) January 5, 2019
Consider this another way of viewing just how good the Bears’ defense is: You can’t sustain long drives against them, and if you get a short field, you’re hardly guaranteed to score a touchdown, let alone even get points.
The playoffs are a different beast, of course, especially against an offense that’s rolling with Foles at quarterback. But the larger point to this key: If the Bears simply play their game on defense, they’ll shut down the Eagles — as they have just about every other opponent that’s come to the lakefront this year.
3. More of the same from Mitch.
Over his last three games, Trubisky has efficiently operated the Bears’ offense, generally taking care of the ball while taking a few calculated shots downfield. It’s led to Trubisky completing 76 percent of his passes for 644 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 109.7, which reads like a clear path to a Bears win if he can replicate that success on Sunday.
There’s not much else to this. The Bears could still win even if Trubisky regresses to overthrowing some bad interceptions and making a handful of mistakes (they did against the Rams, after all). But it’s hard to see the Bears losing if Trubisky just keeps doing what he’s been doing over the last few weeks.
Prediction: Bears 23, Eagles 17.
The Eagles are a good team playing well entering the playoffs, and are buoyed by the collective experience of winning the Super Bowl last year with Foles as their quarterback. But the Bears’ defense is staggeringly great, the kind of group that’s more than good enough to overcome the legend of Foles (and, more importantly, a strong offensive line).
The Bears only lost one game at home this year, that to the New England Patriots while allowing two special teams touchdowns. It would take an uncharacteristically-poor game for the Bears to lose on Sunday, and all week players and coaches have given off signs that they’re not merely happy to be in the playoffs. This is a team that believes it can make a run to the Super Bowl, and that run starts on Sunday.
Bonus wild card round playoff predictions:
Colts 27, Texans 17
Seahawks 20, Cowboys 17
Ravens 23, Chargers 21