If Week 5 was a “prove it” week for the Chicago Bears, then Week 6 should be defined as a validation opportunity for Matt Nagy’s team.
Let’s face it. The Bears still aren’t getting very much public respect. Even after defeating Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, they opened as 3-point underdogs to a Panthers team that openly orchestrated a teardown in the offseason and whose owner, David Tepper, admitted: “We know it’s not going to be a fast process.”
Yet the rebuilding team is favored against the 4-1 team that has allowed the fourth-fewest points in the NFL this season.
Regardless of what the gambling public thinks of the Bears, Sunday’s game in Charlotte is one they absolutely should win. If the Bears are getting bashed for their relatively easy September schedule, then there’s not much logic in giving the Panthers credit for three straight wins against the Chargers, Cardinals and Falcons. Much of the Carolina hype is based on their incredibly low expectations.
What matters far more is the talent on the field, and make no mistake, the Bears are the more talented team in this matchup.
Starting on defense – where the Bears currently rank fifth in defensive DVOA – Chuck Pagano’s unit is trending up. They statistically held up during a slow start in which the tape suggested there were holes. But in the last two weeks, inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith have played better while the pass rush has dialed up the pressure. The lack of an offseason/preseason may have led to some of the veterans needing time to get their legs under them, but Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks now look like the dangerous front-line trio they were expected to be in 2020.
The Panthers, meanwhile, rank No. 23 in defensive DVOA and are in the midst of a full blown rebuild on that side of the ball. Not only did Ron Rivera leave town, but eight defensive starters did too. And now defensive tackle Kawann Short is out of the year with a shoulder injury.
If Matt Nagy and Nick Foles can’t get the offense going this week, then there might not be much hope for that unit figuring it out in 2020. Of course, the same thing could be said about the Bears’ previous two road games against the Falcons and Lions, who rank No. 28 and 30, respectively, in defensive DVOA. The Bears fell behind in both of those games and needed historical fourth quarter comebacks to win. Still, the Bears ended up scoring 27 against the Lions and 30 against the Falcons, with Mitchell Trubisky starting both games at quarterback and Foles doing most of the damage against the Atlanta. Ideally, the Bears won’t fall into a deep hole against the Panthers, but they should be able to score closer to 30 points regardless of when or how those points are scored.
In fairness, I can’t point out the defensive DVOA disparity without doing the same on offense, where the Panthers rank No. 9 and the Bears rank No. 26. Carolina made a great head coaching hire in the offseason when they brought Matt Rhule over from Baylor, but the hiring of Joe Brady from LSU might have been even more impactful. Brady is just 31 years old and has risen from a graduate assistant at Penn State to NFL offensive coordinator in just four years. He coordinated Joe Burrow’s record-breaking season at LSU last year, but two years ago he was an assistant in New Orleans where he worked very closely with Saints backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The Panthers very smartly decided to pair Brady and Bridgewater in Charlotte this year.
But as well as things are going for the Panthers’ offense, the unit is more accurately described as a well-coached, methodical attack, rather than an explosive group that can’t be defended. Despite ranking No. 6 in total offense, the Panthers are averaging just 24.4 points per game, which ranks 21st. They’re doing their best to control the football and keep their shaky defense off the field, but it’s not like the Bears are facing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs this week.
Essentially, this game should boil down the Bears’ defense stopping the Panthers’ rushing offense – most notably former Bears running back Mike Davis, who has done a remarkable job filling in for Christian McCaffrey the last three weeks. And if there’s one concern about Chuck Pagano’s defense, it’s the leaky nature of the run defense.
"If we tackle like we did last week, (Davis will) have 200 yards on us. We can't do that,” Pagano said Thursday.
But realistically, the Panthers haven’t faced a defense as good as the Bears since they lost 31-17 to the Buccaneers in Week 2, a game in which Carolina did most of its damage through the air. In this case, the secondary is the Bears’ strength.
The Panthers are a fun story right now, but they’re due for a bit of a reality check Sunday. The prediction here is that Nagy and Foles find a way to establish more offensive rhythm against a young Panthers defense, while Pagano’s unit bends occasionally but rarely breaks in a comfortable victory.
Let’s call it Bears 27, Panthers 13.