Here’s what the Bears need to happen to earn a first-round bye

December 18, 2018

We know the Chicago Bears are in the playoffs. They’re division champs, which means Soldier Field will host a playoff game for the first time in nearly eight years. They’re all but locked into at least the NFC’s No. 3 seed, barring a late collapse.

That’s all great news for those who follow the team. But there’s room for even more positive developments.

The Bears still can earn a first-round bye. The Rams shockingly losing to the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night was a big thing for the Bears. They now can win their remaining two games and have the Rams lose one more, and they can be the No. 2 seed in the conference by virtue of the Bears’ head-to-head win over L.A. in Week 14.

Imagine what that could do for a Bears team that is having a blast right now and riding a high but one that maybe could use a little rest in January to gear up for their first playoff appearance since the 2010 season. Eddie Jackson suffered an injury Sunday. Kyle Long is attempting to return for the stretch run.

And as Adrian Amos told me Sunday when I asked if he nicked up his ankle late in the win over the Packers, “Man, pretty much everything hurts right now. All little things, but they add up.”

Still, Bears fans should mitigate hope just a bit. The Bears finish with two road games — at the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday and a tilt with the still-fighting Minnesota Vikings in Week 17. The 49ers now have won two straight games for the first time all season, upsetting the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, two teams that were in the playoff race when they faced them. This will be the Niners’ third straight home game, which also must be accounted for.

The Vikings looked dominant in their first game after firing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, downing the Dolphins, 41-17. There’s a very real possibility that they will face the Bears in Week 17 — and then turn around and have to play them a third time in a 48- or 49-day span in a wild-card game if the Bears can’t surpass the Rams in the NFC pecking order.

The Rams wrap up with those same Niners in Week 17 following a road game this Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals, who are the odd-on favorites to earn the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft. So far this season, the Rams — struggling as they might be currently — still have beaten those two teams by a combined score of 73-10 in the first two meetings this season.

So for now, Bears fans should assume they’ll be playing on wild-card weekend at home. Win that one and they’ll have to go on the road, perhaps even at the Rams. The last time the Bears played the Rams in Los Angeles was back on January 2, 1994, when Peter Tom Willis and Jim Harbaugh were the Bears’ quarterbacks. And the last time the Bears played a game at the Los Angeles Coliseum? That would be 1976, when the Bears were led by a 22-year-old Walter Payton.

As for the Bears’ last true postseason road game, not counting the neutral-site Super Bowl XLI? It happened on January 1, 1995 when the Bears beat the Vikings, 35-18, at the old Metrodome. For more perspective of how long ago that was, Bears QB Steve Walsh beat Vikings QB Warren Moon in that game. Six current Bears players were not even born when that game was played.

It’s not to say that the Bears can’t win on the road, but there has been a clear difference in their play on the road vs. at Soldier Field this season. They’re 7-1 at home with a plus-85 point differential in those games. The lone loss came to the New England Patriots by seven points.

On the road, the Bears are 3-3 with losses to the Packers, Dolphins (with Brock Osweiler) and Giants and a point differential of plus-34, although much of that came in Chicago’s 41-9 win over the Bills. Two of those touchdowns came on defense against former Bills QB Nathan Peterman, who was released shortly after that loss.

Bears QB Mitch Trubisky only has played four road games this season, sitting out the Thanksgiving win over the Lions and the loss to the Giants with Chase Daniel taking his place. But Trubisky clearly has been more efficient at home, completing 165-of-258 passes (64.0 percent) for 1,972 yards with 19 TDs and nine interceptions. He also has only taken 11 sacks at Soldier Field and has done some of his most impressive scrambling there, running 42 times for 309 yards and two scores.

On the road, Trubisky has actually completed a higher percentage of his passes at 66.9 (81-of-121 passing) but has done less with them, throwing for 842 yards, four TDs and three picks. He also has taken 10 sacks in less than half the dropbacks he’s had at home and run for only 93 yards and one score on 18 attempts.

But perhaps extra rest won’t guarantee success for the Bears. A quite strange development this season has been the fact that they have struggled to perform after longer layoffs. They lost in the first game of the season against the Packers, lost again following the bye week against the Dolphins and stumbled at the Giants following the “mini-bye” post-Thanksgiving against the Giants.

Still, most people — including those slightly banged-up Bears players — should reasonably hope for playing one fewer game and getting one step deeper into the playoffs while still hosting a game at Soldier Field. All of those other longer-layoff games came on the road, so that factor likely would be canceled out in that scenario.

The Bears should continue to root for the Rams to keep floundering for that to happen. There also is the possibility of the New Orleans Saints, who play Monday night against a desperate Carolina Panthers team, losing out and ceding a first-round bye, even if that is far less likely to happen.

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