On Sunday at 3:30 pm cst., the final game of the opening weekend in the NFL playoffs, the 12-4 Chicago Bears will host the 9-7 Philadelphia Eagles in a matchup that is eerily similar to last years most shocking playoff upset.
For the Chicago Bears to advance in the playoffs, they must keep their offense balanced and either trust their shaky kicking game or abandon it completely and play an aggressive four-down offensive game.
The Parallels are Scary
A year ago, after the off-season hiring of head coach Matt Nagy, football pundits correctly predicted that the 2018 Chicago Bears were the team most likely to repeat the success of the 2017 Los Angeles Rams. Just like the Rams, the Bears made it to the playoffs. Now, they need to do what the 2017 Rams couldn’t: win in the playoffs.
Atlanta 26-13 over Rams
A year ago the 12-4 Rams, led by second-year quarterback Jared Goff, faced a coach with a championship game and a Super Bowl ring on his resume.
Los Angeles, like the Bears this Sunday, was a heavy favorite against Atlanta with a record-setting offense and a defense that featured an MVP candidate and sack machine in Aaron Donald.
Atlanta entered the playoffs a year ago with an improving defense, a veteran quarterback on a hot streak, veteran receivers and the kind of quick hitting passing game that could convert third downs, own the clock, keep Donald at bay and off of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Atlanta converted every trip inside the red zone into points, grabbed the lead and their defense suffocated Jared Goff after halftime.
A case can be made right now that the Eagles, led by the reigning Super Bowl head coach Doug Pederson and Super Bowl 52 MVP Nick Foles, have as much positive momentum as any team entering the playoffs.
Philadelphia enters Chicago having won three games in a row, and five of six, to make the playoffs. They have also beaten three first-place teams in the last five week. Their defense pitched a shutout in its last game, and their receiving corps and running backs are the healthiest they have been all year. They have not lost since Foles took over for an injured Carson Wentz, and running back Darren Sproles came back from injury.
Can Nagy benefit from McVay Mistake?
In the rubble of last years shocking upset of the Rams, there was one huge mistake that Rams rookie head coach Sean McVay made a year ago. As long as the Chicago Bears rookie head coach Matt Nagy doesn’t panic, and game plans accordingly, the Bears should emerge from a tight game.
In spite of having an advantage of 7.2 yards per rush, versus 3.2 yards per rush for Atlanta, McVay had the Rams throw the ball 45 times and lost time of possession to Atlanta 37:35 to 22:25. Todd Gurley ran for over 100 yards but was given almost no opportunities in the second half.
Nagy and the Bears must remember the ground game and not make the Bears one-dimensional on offense. Even if the Bears are behind and struggling offensively, every effort must be made to give their defense an occasional rest.
Jared Goff was harassed just enough that the Rams only converted 5 of 14 third downs on the day. That the Rams only offense was a 32-yard field goal in the second half, underscores how much Atlanta’s defense dominated the second half. Atlanta also took the points at every opprotunity, which is how you play it on the road.
Which leads to a potential Achilles heel for Nagy. The Bears placekicker Cody Parkey has only been consistent at missing and hitting uprights in the second half of the season. Will Parkey’s lack of production affect Matt Nagy’s confidence in his kicking game? How will it factor in the outcome of the game? Should Nagy kick early in the game and risk a miss at home, and boos raining down on his kicker? A miss and an over-reaction may leave the Bears with more than a deficit to overcome. Nagy might feel forced in his play calls to be overly aggressive in the second half. If the Bears are down in the second half, Nagy could feel pressured to go for fourth-down conversions instead of trusting his kicker.
While that philosophy has mostly worked since mid-season for Nagy. Does Bears nation trust the Bears offense to deliver against the best third-down defense in the NFL the last month of the season?
Like McVay in his season-ending loss to Atlanta a year ago, Bears coach Matt Nagy will be coaching his first ever playoff game. The always aggressive Nagy has steadily guided the Bears offense and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky through his playbook. They have even incorporated running back Jordan Howard into more playing time and better production in the last month. This bodes well for avoiding McVay’s critical mistake of a year ago.
He has also used scat-back Tarik Cohen with precision all season, making Cohen perhaps the most dangerous weapon on the Bears. The last quarter of the season, Nagy finally featured Cohen and Howard together in the backfield with the mobile Trubisky. That is a nightmarish three-headed-running monster for the Eagles and any playoff opponent to deal with.
Emphasize Strength, not Weaknesses
Nagy has not lacked aggressiveness or confidence all season. But hopefully dials back the aggression, avoiding deep seam routes on second and longs, and doesn’t put Trubisky into any unnecessary third and longs, especially on their own side of the field.
Nagy needs to show growth in his play calling and bench the plays that are Trubisky’s weakness, like throwing in front of the safeties and over linebackers and corners on seam routes. Trubisky’s strength is crossing routes and slant patterns when he is in the pocket.
Recently the Bears have emphasized a running game that has taken pressure off of Trubisky and limited his contact after a midseason shoulder injury. Nagy has done a great job of managing players injuries this season and getting players healthy for when it counts. It has been one of his greatest strengths in his first season as head coach of the Chicago Bears. It’s no surprise then, that most of the Bears players who have been injured recently, like receiver Allen Robinson and safety Eddie Jackson, are expected to suit up without much limitation. The possible return of right guard Kyle Long means that the Bears will be near full strength, a rarity among this years playoff teams.
Remember… Be You
Matt Nagy has, so far, proven to be a smart coach, with a reminder to be himself on his play call sheet. Maybe you’ve seen it.
But remember, like McVay, Nagy also abandoned the running game last year as Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, when they suffered the same fate as the Rams, and lost in an upset. All-Pro Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt only touched the ball four times in the second half, when Kansas City blew a double-digit lead and lost at home to Tennessee. Bears nation can only hope he has thought this game through enough to remember last year.
Couple any mistakes with bad play calling, and a weak kicking game, and Nagy’s Bears might be in trouble against the defending champs. Hopefully, his game plan is as sound as it’s been all year.
Hopefully, his mind is made up before the game even starts on how to use his kicker. To manage yardage, down, and distance, by using all four downs, and going for it… if he chooses. Rather than letting Parkey trot onto the field with advancement in the balance, and turning Soldier Field into a prayer service.
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