Minnesota Vikings

Off-week musings: Intriguing shifting tides on Bears first-place schedule

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USA TODAY

Off-week musings: Intriguing shifting tides on Bears first-place schedule

As seasons play out, most good teams improve. Some pretenders fall off. Some surprises emerge. So while the Bears were idle in their off-week (not “bye” week – a bye is when you advance in a tournament without playing, as in “first-round bye in the playoffs”) – their first-place schedule underwent some genuinely intriguing twists.

And this is all before the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football.

At roughly the one-third point of the season, elements of the Bears’ schedule, the preseason fifth-hardest based on combined 2018 winning percentages of their opponents, have come into some interesting focus – some parts more difficult, some not so much.

Toughening up

The New Orleans Saints (Oct. 20), who some prematurely wrote off after quarterback Drew Brees tore a ligament in his right hand, gathered even more downhill momentum with Teddy Bridgewater, in place of Brees. Simply put, Bridgewater has consistently played like the No. 1 pick he once was in Minnesota with his career on the Pro Bowl trajectory it was before his catastrophic knee injury in the Vikings’ 2016 training camp.

The 5-1 Saints’ 13-6 win over Jacksonville was their fourth in four Bridgewater starts, with him completing nearly 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdown passes vs. two interceptions over those starts.

Meanwhile, the Vikings (Dec. 29), the same Minnesota Vikings whom the Bears seemingly extinguished a couple weeks back, put 38 points on the Philadelphia Eagles to reach 4-2 with quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing for four touchdowns, three to Stefon Diggs.

Why this particularly matters is that Cousins has completed 44 of 56 passes over his past two games and suddenly looks like anything but the supposed weak link in a team with Super Bowl aspirations and talent. If Cousins is in fact emerging as the quarterback the Vikings thought they were getting, this is a serious concern the Bears.

The Vikings already run the football better than the Bears. They are the equal of the Bears on defense. If they’ve now gained an edge on the Bears at quarterback… .

Out (AFC) West

On the hopeful side, the once-thought-invincible Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 22) lost for the second straight week to a team that committed to running the football. On its 41 rushing attempts, Houston netted 192 yards and three touchdowns, which are nearly as many yards as the Bears have rushed for in their last three games combined, and one more touchdown than the Bears have rushed for all season.

The Texans-Chiefs game was the first meeting between the quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) that coach Matt Nagy was involved in drafting at Kansas City, and the quarterback (Deshaun Watson) that the John Fox staff thought it was getting until informed otherwise by general manager Ryan Pace a couple hours before the 2017 draft.

After a playoff finish in 2018, the L.A. Chargers (Oct. 27) fell behind the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers and a third-string quarterback 24-0 in the third quarter and through six games have lost as many games (four) as they did all last season.

The Super Bowl Curse, which causes Super Bowl losers to miss the playoffs the following season, may be claiming the L.A. Rams (Nov. 17), who sagged to 3-3 with a 20-7 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The NFC L’East

The NFC East suddenly looks eminently beatable, playing its way into being the only NFL division with exactly zero teams above .500.

Besides the doormat Washington Redskins, who were out-tanked by the Miami Dolphins, and defense-lite (five of six games allowing 28 or more points) New York Giants (Nov. 24), the Philadelphia Eagles (Nov. 3) were on the receiving end of Cousins’ efforts in the 38-20 thumping in Minnesota. That was followed by the Dallas Cowboys (Dec. 5) struggling against and losing to the New York Jets – yes, the JETS.

NFC North standings: Bears fall to 3rd place after Week 5 loss to Raiders

NFC North standings: Bears fall to 3rd place after Week 5 loss to Raiders

The NFC North is an extremely competitive division in 2019, which is why the Chicago Bears' Week 5 loss to the Oakland Raiders in London will be a game that's circled as a 'what if' down the stretch.

Had the Bears managed to complete their pretty incredible comeback on Sunday — they trailed 17-0 at halftime but fought back to a 21-17 lead late in the fourth quarter — they would've begun their bye week in a first-place tie (of sorts) with the Green Bay Packers.

Instead, they're splitting rent with the Minnesota Vikings in the division's basement.

The Packers' impressive 34-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, which was actually more lopsided than the final score, confirmed Green Bay's status as the class of the division through five weeks. In fact, it isn't particularly close right now.

The Detroit Lions had their bye in Week 5, so they remain at 2-1-1, while the Vikings took care of business against a lowly New York Giants team, 28-10.

The Vikings' win, coupled with Chicago's 24-21 loss to the Raiders, brings both teams to 3-2. The Bears have a slight edge because of their head-to-head win in Week 4.

Here's how the NFC North stands through five weeks:

1. Green Bay Packers (4-1)
2. Detroit Lions (2-1-1)
3. Chicago Bears (3-2)
4. Minnesota Vikings (3-2)

Khalil Mack says he 'doesn't see a weakness' in Bears defense

Khalil Mack says he 'doesn't see a weakness' in Bears defense

The Bears defense is once again the talk of the NFL after an absolutely dominant performance against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday. Chicago won the game, 16-6, with a backup quarterback and another all-around average offensive output. 

Through four games this season, the Bears have relied on their defense en route to a 3-1 record and they are closing in on a first-place standing in the NFC North. Khalil Mack is leading the way again with four sacks and four forced fumbles, marking the second year in a row that he's accomplished that stat line in Chicago after one month of play.

Mack isn't the only Bears defender who's enjoying a great start to the season, however. As a team, Chicago is fifth in total yards allowed per game, third in rushing yards allowed per game, and third in both sacks and interceptions. Needless to say, there's been no regression under defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

Mack joined Deion Sanders on NFL Gameday Prime and talked about this special group.

"To be honest, I don't really see a dropoff," Mack told Sanders Sunday night. "Only thing that hasn't really happened as much is turnovers.

"I don't really see a weakness, man. We stop the run, I mean, you can give up some short throws here and there but that's about it. You got Kyle Fuller, Prince, you got Eddie Jackson, you got HaHa, you got all these dudes man. Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Big Nick, then you got Big Akiem, there's not too many weaknesses on defense, man. It's looking real good."

It's one thing to be a great player, it's another to be a great leader. We all know Mack is the engine that makes the Bears' defense run, but for him to identify so many of his teammates and give credit to the guys who line up alongside him is an example of what makes him so special. It's not about him; it's about the Bears.

In Week 4's win over the Vikings, it was all about the Bears defense.