For the first time in a long time — maybe 2014, maybe 2012, maybe 2010, depending on your outlook — the Bears have everything in front of them, including a legitimate playoff run, entering the second half of a season.
Five of this team’s remaining eight games come against the NFC North, including a critical three-game stretch beginning Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field. The path for the Bears, then, seems clear: At the very least, win three of those five division games, then take two of three from the New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. That gets the Bears to 10-6, which usually would be good enough for a playoff spot (though it wasn’t in 2012).
But for the Bears to follow that path, or perhaps do better than it, they’ll need to get the right answers to these five questions:
1. Will Mitch Trubisky be better?
We wrote about this on Wednesday, but there are two viewpoints here:
A) Trubisky has been good enough to get the Bears to 5-3; and nearly 6-2 based on a good game in a loss to the Miami Dolphins.
B) Trubisky is inaccurate, missing too many open receivers and throwing too many bad interceptions.
Neither point is necessarily wrong or right. The Bears have proven they can win without Trubisky playing particularly well (like against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals), and were competitive against the New England Patriots even with Trubisky barely completing over 50 percent of his passes.
It’s worth noting Trubisky faced better pass defenses in the first half of the year (average passing defense DVOA rank: 14.5) than he will in the second half (average: 19.6), starting with a 30th-ranked Lions defense that looks to be without its best cornerback in Darius Slay on Sunday. That should help Trubisky’s production match the sort of play-to-play growth coaches see in him, as will the natural progression of a second-year quarterback running a first-year offense.
Can the Bears make the playoffs of Trubisky’s inaccurate throws and poor decisions continue to crop up? Yes. A repeat of the first half would put the Bears at 10-6 and, more likely than not, in the playoffs.
But no factor will be more important to making sure the Bears reach the postseason for the first time since 2010 than the improvement of their quarterback.
2. Is Khalil Mack 100 percent?
The Bears made the right call in having Mack sit out against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, games they should’ve won (and did win, comfortably) without the highest paid defensive player in NFL history.
“We know what we’re got here and just understanding the situation, it was better for the team,” Mack said. “So I bit my tongue and sat back and listened instead of trying to do too much in the situation. It is what it is now. We’re got two wins and trying to make it three.”
Mack’s first four games in a Bears uniform were an awesome spectacle of dominance, with the 27-year-old forcing a fumble in each of those games while recording a pick-six and wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. Best-case, the Bears get that Mack back when he returns to play Sunday against the Lions.
Not every opponent will be able to gameplan as well for Mack’s presence as the Dolphins (quick throws in the heat and humidity) and Patriots (quick throws executed by one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time) were.
“He always plays really, really hard,” outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley said. “And just his impact on the game — with Miami, their protection plan was so specific to him and even New England’s to an extent, it wasn’t so much the protection plan but the way that they were going to go about that game, ball out quick, screen, misdirection — just that part gives us an advantage as a team. So moving forward, when he gets back full strength, it’s going to create more opportunities for everybody.”
3. Can this team finish in the fourth quarter?
A rather nefarious trend that emerged in the first half of 2018 was the Bears’ issues finishing games in the fourth quarter. This group did that against the Seahawks (with Prince Amukamara’s pick-six) and Cardinals (with a barrage of forced turnovers) but failed to close out games against the Packers and Dolphins, or hold the Patriots at bay in what wound up being a seven-point loss.
The statistics bear that trend out. Here’s the Bears’ offense’s quarter-by-quarter yards per play breakdown:
It’s a much starker divide for the defense:
The Bears have only won one close game (Arizona) out of four (Green Bay, Miami and New England being the others — Seattle wasn’t really close, with the Seahawks getting a late, late score to bring it within seven). Winning by wide margins is a better indicator of future success than winning by narrow margins, but eventually, the Bears are going to have to win a close game against a better opponent than the woebegone Cardinals.
And doing that will require playing better in the fourth quarter on offense, defense and special teams. The Bears believe they’re improving as a team, and if given the opportunity will convert a fourth quarter drive or defensive stop into a victory. But until they do it, it’s a question that needs to be answered.
4. How deep is this team?
The Bears have been remarkably healthy (feel free to knock on wood here) through the first eight games of the season, placing only two players on injured reserve (Sam Acho and Kyle Long) while having starters Anthony Miller, Prince Amukamara, Allen Robinson and Mack combine to miss six games.
The Bears’ training staff and the plan put together by that crew and Nagy deserves praise here. But this is football, and the Bears’ will be tested beyond the interior offensive line — which struggled at times to make up for Long’s absence against the Bills last weekend.
But heading into Sunday’s game against the Lions, the Bears only listed one player as out (Dion Sims, concussion) and one as questionable (Bilal Nichols, knee). Compare that to the Lions, who will be without rock-solid guard T.J. Lang and top cornerback Darius Slay, while linebacker Eli Harold is doubtful and four players (including defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and running back Kerryon Johnson) are questionable.
Eventually, though, the Bears’ depth will be tested. And while it hasn’t really been yet, Nagy is confident when that test comes, his team will respond to it well.
“It’s pretty good,” Nagy said. “I felt that going into this year. I think one of the things, you always want to have a contingency plan in case. We’ve had a couple guys this year where we’ve had to deal with backups in certain cases, and I think our guys have done well. Having depth, that’s really important for any team in this league to be able to feel good with that going into it. And I’ve felt that way, really, the whole way from training camp.”
How the Bears handle Long’s absence with the trio of James Daniels, Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann will be important, but it’s also worth noting Adam Shaheen returned to practice this week and, while he’s unlikely to play against Detroit, could be in line for his season debut on Sunday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings.
5. What will the NFC Wild Card picture look like?
The best path to the playoffs for the Bears is though the NFC North, especially with two games remaining against the Minnesota Vikings (5-3-1). But that’s a Vikings team that was favored to win the division before the season, and should be considered the favorites to win the NFC North until further notice.
Maybe further notice comes on Sunday Night Football. But in the case it doesn’t, it’s important to take stock in the NFC playoff picture halfway through the season. Two things appear clear:
1) The Los Angeles Rams will win the NFC West
2) The New Orleans Saints will win the NFC South
There’s still a lot of time for things to change (except in the NFC West, where it would take a comical turn of events for the Rams to not win that division). But if we consider the Rams and Saints the favorites to earn byes in the playoffs, and the Philadelphia Eagles and Vikings to win their respective divisions, what competition will the Bears be going up against for one of the conference’s two wild card spots?
The Carolina Panthers (6-3) — despite getting whomped by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday Night Football — look like the best bet to make the playoffs out of the teams likely not to win their division. Then there’s this group:
Any of those five teams could make it. Washington’s arrow is pointing down, while the Falcons’ arrow is pointing up. The Seahawks still have Russell Wilson and the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers.
So the Bears’ best route to the playoffs, again, is in winning the NFC North — a division against which they’re 6-25 since the end of the 2013 season. Those efforts begin Sunday at Soldier Field.