The Chicago Bears 24-17 win over the rival Green Bay Packers Sunday not only helped clinch the NFC North title, but it also symbolized a form of vindication for a franchise that was seemingly stuck in neutral.
After eight years of playoff futility and four straight seasons finishing at the bottom of the division standings, the Bears are returning to the postseason. They’ll host a playoff game at Soldier Field most likely during Wildcard weekend, barring any upset losses from the New Orleans Saints or Los Angeles Rams.
Led by a vibrant, first-year head coach in Matt Nagy, the Bears’ 2018 season has been chalked with enjoyable moments and signature wins. It’s been refreshing to see a competitive team week in and week out, making the journey back to postseason football even sweeter despite a long, agonizing road.
The win against the Packers certainly was vindication for general manager Ryan Pace, who was criticized for a 14-34 tenure his first three seasons.
The damage from former GMs Jerry Angelo and Phil Emery had destroyed the state of the franchise. Poor draft choices and failed free agency acquisitions left the roster in shambles when Pace was hired in 2015.
He was forced to undergo a complete rebuild from the get-go. However, there were still questionable decisions early in his rebuilding process. From 2015-2017, Pace’s offseason signings included the likes of Antrel Rolle, Quintin Demps, Dion Sims and Mike Glennon.
His draft choices during that span also were a mixed bag. While picks like Cody Whitehair, Jordan Howard, Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen showed promise early, other picks like first-rounders Leonard Floyd and Mitchell Trubisky were still massive question marks. And Kevin White, Pace’s first ever draft pick? He never stayed healthy or showed glimpses of being a top pick, making the selection a clear bust.
However, the tide started turning when Pace hired Nagy to replace John Fox. The synergy between the fourth-year GM and first-year coach shouldn’t be understated. Both were able to retain defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and their offseason game plan was executed to near perfection.
Nagy, a disciple of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, had a vision for his offense. Pace added free agents like Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton, allowing Nagy to develop their young franchise quarterback with ample playmakers.
His 2018 draft class included linebacker Roquan Smith, guard James Daniels and wide receiver Anthony Miller, and they’ve been key contributors in their rookie campaigns. However, Pace’s biggest offseason acquisition came a week before the season. When the Bears traded for All-Pro pass-rusher Khalil Mack, they added a game-changing player to their roster.
The addition of Mack vaulted a solid defense into one of the best in the NFL, and it raised the expectations of the 2018 season. Mack has been a nightmare for opposing offenses all year and was on full display against the Packers, sacking Rodgers 2.5 times and consistently creating pressure on seemingly every drop back.
Opposite Mack, Floyd also had his finest moment as a Bear. Floyd, who was Pace’s second ever first-round pick, had showed flashes his first two seasons but struggled earlier this year with a hand injury. He’s been better as of late, and his signature performance Sunday included six tackles and two sacks.
Aside from the Bears’ two pass-rushers, some of Pace’s other defensive pickups put on a show too. Akiem Hicks continued to be a force, generating plenty of pressure up front and thwarting the ground game. Roquan Smith and fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan were all over the middle of the field, stopping short passes from turning into long gains. Smith even made a nice deflection in the red zone, allowing Eddie Jackson to make a vital interception with about three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
On the other side of the ball, Trubisky also was locked in. After a rough three-interception outing against the Rams last week, the second-year quarterback was focused and accurate. While completing 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions isn’t gaudy, he hit on some difficult throws on the move and wasn’t struggling with his progressions. If that is the blueprint we can expect come playoff time, the Bears should be in good shape.
Seeing Trubisky outperform Rodgers must’ve been thrilling for Pace, who gave up draft equity to move up from third to second overall to draft him in 2017. Trubisky’s performance has been uneven this season, but he only has 24 starts in his pro career and had 13 collegiate starts prior to being drafted. His athleticism and skill set are very encouraging, and the support system of Nagy and the pieces Pace added should only aid in his development now and going forward.
All of these additions have been catalysts to the Bears success, and Pace deserves credit for acquiring them. He also deserves equal amounts of praise for hiring the right head coach to lead his team. Nagy not only is developing the team’s raw quarterback, but he also is creating a confident and enthusiastic culture for a franchise that couldn’t seem to get things right.
Sealing their playoff fate against the Packers made the feeling even sweeter. Since Rodgers stepped into the role as Green Bay’s starting quarterback, the Bears have essentially played the role of little brother in the NFL’s longest rivalry.
Before Sunday, the Packers were 18-4 against the Bears since 2008. They’ve won five division titles, made eight playoff appearances and captured a Super Bowl championship in that span while the Bears enjoyed only one division title and four straight last place finishes in the NFC North from 2014 to 2017.
After the Rodgers led a devastating comeback in week 1, Sunday’s matchup was set up to be the perfect storm. The Bears gained revenge, capturing the division crown and changing the narrative in the process.
This team is no longer a punching bag for the Packers or the rest of the division. While injuries and other unforeseen circumstances can change a franchise’s fortunes, Pace has built a team that should contend not only this year but also in the next few seasons. They have a roster filled with young talent and enough cap flexibility to fill small holes. That’s the biggest benefit of having a young quarterback on a rookie contract.
There is still plenty of room for growth, especially on offense. But Sunday’s game showed us that if all the pieces perform to their potential, the Bears will be tough out this year and the foreseeable future.
And that’s all you can ask for any given Sunday.