Matt Nagy last week mentioned the upcoming stretch of the NFL season will see the league's good teams separate from the not-so-good teams. The Bears are 3-3; there’s a strong chance we’ll know for sure if this team is a viable playoff contender by the time they take off from LAX after playing the Rams in mid-November.
Going a little further into the Bears' schedule, though, it doesn't look as difficult as it did before the season started:
The Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles are not the Super Bowl contenders many predicted they'd be two months ago. The Chargers are 2-5, while the 3-4 Eagles are dealing with a horrendous defense and a volatile locker room.
Are the Detroit Lions good? They’ve been competitive, and were a few yards and a few atrocious officiating decisions away from beating legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. But they're a team trending toward separating to the bottom of the league.
The Rams have been a mess recently, even with their blowout win over the full-fledged tire fire that is the 2019 Atlanta Falcons. The New York Giants? They’re not good, though they get Saquon Barkley back this week. And the Dallas Cowboys are less than two weeks removed from losing to the New York Jets.
But aren’t those six teams looking at the Bears and saying “hey, they’re not as good as we thought” too?
Nagy believes one victory can be a spark, the kind of thing that could set off a 10-game winning streak — a belief based on his experience with the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs starting 1-5 before ripping off 11 wins in a row, including in the playoffs.
But the Eagles or Rams or Chargers or Lions believe the same thing, and can reasonably view a worse-than-expected Bears team as an ideal opponent for that spark. Nagy is leaning on the culture built inside Halas Hall to make sure the Bears are the one to harness that energy, and not those other underperforming teams.
The Bears can hope for that spark, but there’s also evidence the separation between 2019’s contenders and the Bears has already begun.
The Bears are 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, ahead of two future opponents (the Chargers at 22, the Giants at 27) but behind the Eagles (15), Lions (13) and Rams (11). The Bears’ final four opponents are all currently ranked in the top six by DVOA: Dallas (4), Green Bay (5), Kansas City (3) and Minnesota (6).
"There are a bunch of teams in the NFL going through struggles right now and the expectations are high because of everything we did last year," quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. "But reality is we’re in the same spot – 3-3 – we were in that spot last year."
This is different than last year, when the Bears were in DVOA’s top 10 after a Week 7 loss to the New England Patriots dropped them to 3-3. That team had the luxury of facing teams that had already separated themselves into the non-contender pool in the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Lions. Their final four games came against a bad Giants team, a Packers team that’d just fired its coach, an even worse 49ers team and then a listless Vikings team.
“Last year we were 3-3 and went 12-4,” wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “So that's just us thinking positive, going throughout this week, being positive, grinding and even working harder, I feel like we'll be OK.”
Maybe all the Bears need is to beat the Chargers and Eagles to jump-start this season and navigate an easier-than-expected schedule through the end of November. But maybe all the Chargers and Eagles need is to beat a worse-than-expected Bears team to jump-start their seasons, too.
Because the time for separation is near in the NFL, and that may not be a good thing for the Bears.
“The message that we’ve had is get tighter, believe in one another, keep trusting, right, and bond together and then when you get that one win, it just sparks,” Nagy said, snapping his fingers. “It’s crazy. It’s just absolutely crazy how that works. So we gotta do that.”
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