Wild Card Weekend of the NFL playoffs will conclude on Sunday with Philadelphia taking on Chicago, a matchup no one saw coming entering this season. The Bears were supposed to be rebuilding. They were expected to compete but not contend. On the other hand, the Eagles seemed well positioned to make a run at back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Instead, Philadelphia (9-7) couldn't put together even a modest winning streak through the first 10 games of the season and needed a 5-1 finish (and some help from other teams, including the Bears) just to get in the back door of the playoffs. Chicago was more focused on changing the culture and finding an identity under first-year head coach Matt Nagy but along the way to doing that the Bears found a way to win 12 games and break their seven-year postseason drought. Nagy's debut has been so successful that many are starting to talk about this team being the one to bring a second Vince Lombardi Trophy home to the Windy City.
But for that dream to become a reality, these young Bears must first successfully defend home field on Sunday against an Eagles team that's eager to remind everyone they are the defending Super Bowl champs. Here are five things that the Bears must do in order to advance to next weekend's Divisional Round.
1. Pressure Nick Foles
The Eagles may look to run the ball more considering that Foles sustained a rib injury in Week 17. But when Foles does drop back to pass, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio needs to turn Kahlil Mack and company loose. Containing Foles and the passing game should be top priority on Sunday. After all, Foles has shown on many occasions what type of magic he can work when given the chance. Over his last two games, Foles has thrown for 692 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 77 percent of his pass attempts. He also has been sacked four times and lost a fumble. Between the tender ribs and his turnover tendencies (six total in five games this season), it's imperative that the Bears not let him get too comfortable in the pocket.
2. Get creative with the running game
Philadelphia enters this game ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing defense at 96.9 yards per game. The Eagles are giving up less than five yards (4.7) per carry and have let just three players post 100 yards in a game on the ground against them, and this is after facing five of the league's top eight rushers – Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey, and Adrian Peterson – and three of them twice. Over the last three games, Philadelphia has given up a total of 165 rushing yards, meaning this defense appears to be rounding into form at the exact right time.
The Bears can move the ball in a few ways with their stable of running backs (led by Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen), a mobile quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky, and Matt Nagy also isn't afraid to use wide receivers or even tight ends on various sweeps and trick plays. Regardless of the play call, formation or scheme, Chicago will need to find a way to run the ball effectively on Sunday.
3. Keep Mitchell Trubisky upright
Philadelphia's defense has dealt with plenty of injuries throughout the season, but the secondary in particular has been hit hard. Four defensive backs are currently on injured reserve, which is a big reason why the Eagles are 30th in passing yards allowed per game (269.3). However, the defense has worked together to limit the total amount of damage teams have done thanks in part to an effective pass rush that has generated 44 sacks (tied for eighth). Defensive linemen Fletcher Cox (leads team with 10.5 sacks), Michael Bennett (9), and Chris Long, brother of Bears offensive lineman Kyle (6.5) are more than capable of disrupting opposing offenses. And even with the injuries, the Eagles still have playmakers in the back seven like linebackers Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks (188 combined tackles) as well as safety Malcolm Jenkins (three forced fumbles) and cornerback Rasul Douglas (three interceptions).
Even if Chicago is successful running the ball, the offense still needs Trubisky to make some plays to reach its full potential. If the Bears' offensive line can't give Trubisky the time he needs in the pocket, it increases the chances of him rushing a throw or making a bad decision, as well as open him up to taking some big hits either inside or outside of the pocket. If Chicago can establish control of the line of scrimmage, but especially when it has the ball, it should put even more pressure on Philadelphia's patchwork secondary.
4. Operation: Cover Zach Ertz
Ertz has already made history this season as his 116 catches set a new record for the most by a tight end, eclipsing Jason Witten's previous mark of 110, and he did it in Week 16. Ertz is by far the Eagles' leading receiver as he also is tops on the team in yards (1,163) and touchdown catches (eight). Ertz does benefit from the presence of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery (former Bear), Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor, but the two-time Pro Bowler isn't exactly sneaking up on teams either. His combination of size (6-5, 250), strength and reliable hands make him a tough target to defend and he's not easy to bring down either (363 yards after the catch). Chicago's defense did a decent job against tight ends during the regular season, but that won't cut it against one of the league's best in Ertz.
5. Cody Parkey must be perfect
Perfect is the word that has eluded the Bears' $15 million kicker thus far. He’s missed seven field goals (23-of-30) and three extra points (42-of-45), including one in Minnesota last week. There was a point during the middle of the season when fans used social media to express their displeasure in Parkey as he endured a stretch where he connected on just three of seven FG attempts. But Nagy has stood by and vocally supported his kicker throughout the season. Parkey can reward his coach's faith and trust (as well as his teammates') by being flawless on Sunday.
Chicago needs to minimize the big plays from Philadelphia's offense, particularly in the passing game. The Bears are the best when it comes to forcing turnovers (36, including 27 INTs) while the Eagles enter this game with a minus-six differential. The Bears are 7-1 at Soldier Field this season.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.