Last Sunday afternoon in US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis Minnesota, the last real piece of business deciding the NFC side of the playoffs played out.
The suddenly re-invigorated Philadelphia Eagles would be playing against an injury-ravaged Washington team, so the Vikings had little hope that the Eagle season would perish quietly in the nation’s capital. That left them with the imperative of winning their last game of the season – at home against division rival Chicago.
The Vikings had put themselves in “win-and-you’re-in” territory with consecutive solid wins against Miami and in Detroit. On the one hand, they piled up 61 points in the two wins. On the other hand, those two teams finished the season 7-9 and 6-10 respectively. Would the recent success – which included 320 rushing yards in the two games – continue against this tougher opponent?
By the time the first half ended, it was more than apparent that it would not. The Vikings hit the locker room trailing 13-3 with 18 rushing yards, and just 49 offensive yards in total. They had no play gain more than 9 yards, were 1-7 on third down, punted 5 times and never made it into the red zone.
More than just being dominated by the Bear defense, Minnesota played tight, nervous football – none of them tighter or more nervous than quarterback Kirk Cousins – although, as Troy Aikman frequently pointed out, the Viking defense didn’t bring their best game either.
Trailing just 7-0 early in the second quarter, Minnesota surrendered a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that ate 5:39 off the clock, and set the Bear victory in motion. Crucial to the drive were two key third downs.
On third-and-11 from his own 24, Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky overthrew his receiver up the left sideline. Instead of bringing up fourth down, however, Chicago found themselves with a first-and-10 at their own 39, courtesy of a roughing the passer call against Stephen Weatherly. The push to the ground was comparatively gentle, but he did take that extra step after the pass was thrown.
Five plays later, the Bears were in third down again – third-and-7 on the Viking 41. This time Trubisky made the critical completion finding Taylor Gabriel up the left sideline for 40 yards. Cornerback Holton Hill – filling in for the injured Xavier Rhodes – made an enticing target all night. Chicago scored on the next play.
Minnesota made some small attempts to creep back into the game in the second half, but on this afternoon it was evident early that Chicago was the better team. So, in the aftermath of their convincing 24-10 victory (gamebook) (summary), the only real question to come out of this game is about Chicago. Are the Bears “playoff ready?”
Super Bowl Shuffle II?
Defensively, the Bears have looked ready for most of the season. After the Vikings finished just 1-11 on third downs, amassing just 164 yards of offense, Chicago finished the season as statistically dominant as any defense in recent years. They finished first in interceptions (27), in percentage of passes intercepted (4.40), in lowest passer rating against (72.9), fewest points allowed (283), and fewest rush yards allowed per game (80.0). They finished second in yards allowed per completed pass (10.2). While ranking third in total defense by yards allowed, they also finished third in lowest percentage of pass completions allowed (61.3) and fewest yards per attempted pass (6.27). Additionally, they were fourth in average yards allowed per rush (3.8) and lowest percentage of third downs converted (34.2). They finished fifth in fewest percentage of passes going for touchdowns (3.6) and lowest red zone touchdown percentage (50.0).
What these numbers represent is a defense with no visible weaknesses. They have demonstrated themselves as elite against both the run and the pass, while handling the situational moments (third down, red zone) as well as any other unit in football.
They reached their peak during their Week 14 dismantling of the high-powered Los Angeles Rams. In that 15-6 victory, they limited Los Angeles to 14 first downs and 214 yards while taking the ball away 4 times (Chicago’s 36 takeaways also led the league).
Certainly any offensive coordinator faced with scoring against this unit will be challenged. My best council for any team facing Chicago – beginning with Philadelphia this Sunday – is to preach ball security. Throwing the ball away on third down and punting isn’t always the worst decision.
You see, while the Bear defense has established themselves as one of the elite NFL units, Chicago’s offense is less accomplished. They finished the season ranked just twenty-first in total yardage and passing yardage. While not one of the Neanderthal teams that I wrote about last week, Chicago is still quite reliant on its running game. After watching young Mr Trubisky come down the stretch, I am of the opinion that if Chicago needed to rely on his arm to win a playoff game this year, they might be in trouble.
Mitch was just OK against Minnesota on Sunday. While he completed 18 of 26 (69.2%), he threw for just 163 yards (just 9.06 per completion). Almost without exception, Trubisky’s best passing performances this season have come in games where he throws fewer than 30 passes.
Six times this year, Mitch has had the luxury of throwing fewer than 30 passes in the game. Chicago won all six of them. His passer rating was over 100 in four of those games. His passer rating in those games combined was 118.5, with a 12-1 touchdown to interception ratio.
In his other eight games, Mitch threw the ball at least 30 times. The Bears were 5-3 in those games. His rating surpassed 100 only twice in those games, while he had five games under 80. His rating in those games was a modest 82.2 with a 12-11 touchdown to interception ratio.
Offensively, the Bears turned the ball over 24 times themselves.
So, the game plan looks to me to be the following: Take care of the ball. Don’t give them any easy scores. Take away the Chicago running game, and make Mitch throw to beat you.
By next year (as Trubisky matures) this strategy may not work anymore. But I’m not sure that this year Trubisky is a consistent enough reader of defenses and thrower of accurate passes to put this team on his shoulders and carry them to a title.
Mike Nagy’s Interesting Dilemma
Going into the game, Mike Nagy confessed to Misters Buck and Aikman that he was at something of a loss on how to proceed coaching a game that might quickly become meaningless – at least to his team. Whether he would rest key players, whether he would keep fighting to win the game – all of these were decisions that he would make at the time.
As things turned out, this game was, indeed, quickly rendered meaningless to his Chicago Bears – and just as quickly turned all-important to the team he was facing. As the Rams and Eagles moved quickly in front of their opponents – on their ways to easy victories – it was obvious by halftime that the Bears, whether they would win or lose, would be unable to improve their playoff position.
However, going in at the half ahead by just 10 points, they were in a position to determine their opponent in the wildcard round. It’s a point worth making. At this point, it was quite clear that the Bears were better than the Vikings. The Eagles, making a late season run that was at least reminiscent of their championship run of last year, present something of an unknown quantity. With thirty minutes of football remaining, the Bears had it within their power to eliminate Philadelphia before they could even set foot in the playoffs. An uninspiring second half that would coax the Vikings to victory would set up the rematch between these two teams next weekend, and leave Nick Foles and the Eagles watching on television.
It’s unknown whether this thought crossed Nagy’s mind – and if it did, it is very unlikely that Mike would bend that way. The basic integrity of the NFL is stronger than people might suspect. Nagy and the Bears did the thing they came to Minnesota to do. They beat the Vikings, eliminating them from the playoffs.
Depending on what happens Sunday afternoon against the defending champions, that may be an opportunity that could haunt them through the offseason.