Bears

Confident Bears have 'a different feeling' with playoffs in mind

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Confident Bears have 'a different feeling' with playoffs in mind

Various Bears have spoken the “P” word – playoffs – with an even-handedness over the past couple of weeks, as if they took seriously the possibility of playing a 2015 season of more than 16 games in spite of losing the first three.

Suddenly the scoffing that came with Kyle Long, Tracy Porter and others thinking the “P” word isn’t quite as noisy. And coaches aren’t discouraging that sort of look-ahead, because the playoffs are a lose-and-done proposition, and the Bears are in reality in playoff mode now whether they like it or not. And their attitude is that somebody has to get hot; why not them?

“I thought I could start to feel it three weeks ago, even when we had some of those close losses,” said tight end Zach Miller. “It’s a different feeling and we started to build a little more confidence.  We didn’t finish well in those weeks, but now we’re getting to the point where we’re starting to.”

[MORE BEARS: Adam Gase's play calling has Bears' offensive line 'fired up']

Here’s why:

First, the Bears, where notables have occurred on both offense and defense, in consecutive weeks, both on the road.

They held what was then the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense (San Diego) to one touchdown and Philip Rivers to 280 net passing yards, Rivers who is second by one yard only to Tom Brady in average yards per game (338 vs. 337).

Then they put 37 points on a St. Louis Rams defense that ranked No. 6 in fewest points and allowing half that (18.6 ppg.) coming in.

Second, the NFC. Right now there are seven four-win teams in the NFC. Seven. Using strictly current standings, none of them are wild-card teams but only because there are two second-place teams (Atlanta, Green Bay) with six wins, and overcoming a two-game deficit with seven to play is some level of longshot.

But the Bears play the Packers in a week. And they play two of the other four-win teams – Tampa Bay, Washington – yet this year, while already holding a head-to-head edge on St. Louis. So the simple fact is that the Bears taking the playoffs seriously is both mathematically and realistically not to be summarily dismissed.

[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]

One NFL reality is that every year there are outliers, good and bad, teams that surprise with their unexpected under-achievement and ones that upset predictions by max’ing abilities and opportunities (those are not “overachievers” – other than by artificial means, there is no such thing as an “overachiever,” just ones who got all they could out of what they had – that they were better than expected just means experts were stupid and wrong about you – but that’s for another discussion).

Ironically, last year the Bears were one of those disappoint’er teams, expected to take a step forward after reaching 8-8 in Marc Trestman’s first year but didn’t. So were the San Francisco 49ers.

On the plus-side were the Detroit Lions, going 11-5 in Jim Caldwell’s first season as head coach after more years of failure under Jim Schwartz. This year the Lions became hood ornaments for the other trend line, back to tied for the NFL’s worst record after many prognostications of breakthrough for Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and associates.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.