Comparisons in sports are both easy and inevitable, particularly when the actual entities being compared don’t in some way compete directly against each other to settle the discussion. Joe Louis didn’t ever meet Muhammed Ali in the squared circle. The ’85 Bears defense was a decade too late to take the field against the ‘70’s Steel Curtain, and besides, they wouldn’t have been on the field at the same time anyway.
But comparing the 2018 Bears – and for purposes here, the 2019 Bears – to the current standards of excellence – Super Bowl entrants Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots – is possible. And arguably relevant. More on that momentarily.
For context’s sake, consider the Bears vs. the NFC North and in particular the two measuring standards going into last season, Green Bay and Minnesota.
The Bears went a convincing 5-1 in the division. They dispatched the Detroit Lions twice by a combined 19 points, including 7-point win in Detroit in the second game when their backup QB outplayed the Lions’ starter, whose arrow is what it is at this point. Detroit had won nine of the previous 10 meetings before last year; it can all change that quickly.
The Bears also took the measure of the Packers, going on the road in week one and letting complacency creep into a game they controlled. That was back when Cody Parkey was making all (three) of his field goals and before a young team fully grasped that a wounded animal is sometimes more dangerous than a healthy one. By the time the Packers made their visit to Soldier Field, the Bears had evolved to the point of never trailing in a game in which they, fittingly, clinched the NFC North outright.
As for the Vikings, the popular pick to win both the division and the NFC was squashed a second time in a season. The Bears won going away over a team that was playing for its playoff life.
Pulling the camera back for a wider perspective…
The division is one thing, and it’s entirely possible that the Bears could be incrementally better in 2019 with a settled-in coach, system and roster and still lose more than one game in the division. Green Bay is getting a new coach, Kirk Cousins could perform closer to the level the Vikings thought they were getting with their $84 million guaranteed, and the Lions could…well, the Lions…the Lions are tough at home.
But with the not-assured assumption that the Bears at least offensively can improve in 2019, the case can be made that they in fact are deserving of being in the NFC-elite discussion, perhaps NFL-elite.
The reasons start with the obvious, that they field a defense that is superior to that of the Patriots (16th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking) and the Rams (19th). The correlation between that and success, however, isn’t automatic: Only they and the Baltimore Ravens from among the top seven defenses reached the postseason.
Seven of the top 10 offenses, based on Football Outsiders’ metric, did reach the playoffs, though, and Nos. 2 (Rams) and 5 (Patriots) play for the next Lombardi. The Bears ranked 20th; among the playoff participants, only Houston (21st) and Dallas (24th) ranked lower, and the Bears and Texans were out in the wild-card round.
The Bears benefitted from a fourth-place schedule that included only three playoff teams – Rams, Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. But the Bears did defeat two of those three (Rams, Seahawks).
Next season, six of the Bears games are against playoff teams, plus two against 8-7-1 Minnesota, meaning that half of their games are against winning teams, based on that strength-of-schedule permutation.
But getting to a final point of comparison, the Bears defeated the Rams despite an-overamp’ed Mitchell Trubisky throwing three interceptions (to Jared Goff’s four). They led the Patriots early in the third quarter, fell behind and came up a yard short on a Hail Mary that would’ve tied the game (with the leap of faith that Parkey would have converted the PAT). Trubisky threw 2 interceptions but the Bears out-rushed the Patriots, an area that has been an underappreciated area of strength for the Brady offense. The majority (81) of the Bears rushing yardage (134) came from Trubisky, and an upgrade at running back rates here as the No. 1 offseason Bears need. (Well, tied for No. 1, with kicker; that’s in a different class.)
The future is promised to no one. GM Ryan Pace said as much in his season-ending remarks: “It’s on us to ensure that we’re on the right track and that we stay on the right track.”
But rare has been the season this decade that ended with legitimate bases for projecting the Bears into a position where the oft-amusing odds of winning the Super Bowl get at least a cursory look for reasons other than ridicule. Reflecting on the conference championship games and the upcoming Super Bowl, the Bears have those legitimate reasons.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.