Bears and Saints meet for second time this season with both teams having something to prove
The third and final NFC Wild Card game of the NFL's "Super Wild Card Weekend" has the Chicago Bears taking on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon. The Bears (8-8) lost last week to the Packers but still claimed the final wild-card berth courtesy of winning the tiebreaker (best win percentage in common games) with the Cardinals. The Saints (12-4) finished off their regular season with an easy, 33-7 victory over the Panthers.
But New Orleans knows full well that what you do in the regular season matters little, and the Saints have the playoff scars to prove it. Three seasons ago, New Orleans was on the wrong end of the "Minneapolis Miracle" against Minnesota in the Divisional Round. That was followed by an even more painful (and controversial) overtime loss at home to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game. And last season, the Vikings struck again, this time beating the Saints in overtime in the Wild Card Round.
Chicago has experienced its share of postseason disappointment as well. In the 2018 playoffs, the NFC North champion Bears fell at home to Philadelphia 16-15 in the Wild Card Round, as kicker Cody Parkey infamously double-doinked his 43-yard field goal attempt with just 10 seconds left.
Earlier this season, New Orleans came to Chicago and beat the Bears 26-23 in overtime in Week 8. Chicago overcame a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to send the game to overtime but the Saints won it on Wil Lutz's 35-yard field goal with just 1:36 left in the extra period.
Overall, New Orleans has won six in a row against Chicago, but the Bears have a 2-0 edge in the playoffs. Both of those games were played in the Windy City and the last postseason encounter between the teams was the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 21, 2007, a 39-14 rout by Chicago.
NFC Wild Card: Chicago at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 10 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV: CBS/Nickelodeon, streamed on Amazon Prime Video
Spread: Saints -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will carry the ball for the Saints?
Everyone is waiting to see if Alvin Kamara will be activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list in time to play on Sunday. Shortly after his record-tying six-touchdown performance on Christmas Day against Minnesota, Kamara tested positive for the virus and has been in quarantine since, missing last week's game against Carolina. For his part, Kamara is confident he will be back.
See y’all Sunday â¤ï¸— Alvin Kamara (@A_kamara6) January 8, 2021
For now, he's only able to participate with the team remotely while quarantined so if he does play, rust and familiarity with the game plan could be potential factors.
The good news for New Orleans is that the other backs that were determined to be close contacts with Kamara – Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington, and Michael Burton – have already been taken off the reserve/COVID-19 list so regardless of Kamara's status, the Saints won't be as shorthanded in the backfield as they were last week.
But even down four running backs, New Orleans still ran for 156 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries in rolling over Carolina 33-7. Converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery led the way with 105 yards on 18 carries, which is impressive considering he entered the game with just one rushing attempt for negative yardage this season. Taysom Hill continued to show off his versatility, tallying 41 yards on seven attempts. He left the game with a concussion but appears to be on track to play on Sunday.
Regardless of the Saints' improved backfield depth, the key cog is Kamara. Highlighted by his Christmas Day outburst against the Vikings, Kamara led the NFL with 21 total touchdowns in 15 games, 16 of those coming on the ground. Besides being the leading rusher (career-high 932 yards), Kamara also is the team's leading receiver (83 rec., 765 yds.) and his 1,688 yards from scrimmage are third in the league. In the first game against Chicago, Kamara totaled 163 yards on 21 touches, including a game-high 96 yards on 12 catches.
The Saints' offense also may catch a break on Sunday if Bears Pro Bowl linebacker Roquan Smith can't play because of an elbow injury. Smith left last week's loss to Green Bay after suffering the injury and has not been able to practice. His absence would be a huge blow to Chicago's defense as he finished sixth in the league in total tackles (139) and tied for fourth in tackles for a loss (18). In the first game against New Orleans, Smith racked up 11 stops (9 solo) and 2.5 TFL.
2. Is Mitchell Trubisky playing for his future with Chicago?
Trubisky has suffered, fairly or not, from increasing criticism ever since the Bears traded up to take him with the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He is constantly compared to his peers who were chosen later in the first round, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Of course, it doesn't help that Trubisky consistently comes up short in that comparison.
This season has seen two different versions of Trubisky. He got off to a rough start, getting benched and replaced by Nick Foles just three games in, but has played much better since reclaiming the job. Trubisky was one of the catalysts during Chicago's late-season surge, which saw the Bears snap a six-game losing streak to win three of their last four to sneak into the playoffs.
Trubisky's numbers don't jump off of the page, but he does enter this game with a career-best completion rate of 67 percent and has thrown seven touchdowns vs. three interceptions in his last five games. Also, for all of the criticism Trubisky has received, he is 29-21 as a starter over four seasons, including 6-3 this year. But the bottom line is the team did not pick up his fifth-year option earlier this season, meaning he will be a free agent. So this presents another opportunity for Trubisky to show that he's a starting-caliber quarterback in this league, whether that means he stays in Chicago or lands with another team.
Trubisky will certainly face a tough test in New Orleans. The Saints finished the regular season ranked in the top five in the NFL in all four major defensive categories. Against the pass, New Orleans was fifth with 217 yards allowed per game and tied with Miami and New England for the most interceptions (18) with five of those coming last week against Carolina. And while the Saints have surrendered 28 touchdown passes, they also have been effective in getting to the quarterback. Their 45 sacks rank eighth in the league, although they will be without Trey Hendrickson, who led the team and tied for second in the league with 13.5 sacks. He was ruled out on Friday afternoon because of a neck injury.
Pressure was a key in the first game with Chicago. New Orleans registered five sacks, along with an interception, in that win, but that was against Foles. Trubisky is not a statue in the pocket, as he's averaging nearly six yards per carry, so it will be interesting to see how the Saints account for his mobility. One thing is for sure, getting your first career playoff victory on the road would be a nice resume builder headed into free agency.
3. Which team is feeling more pressure?
As was documented earlier, both New Orleans and Chicago have experienced their share of recent postseason disappointment. The Saints have won four straight NFC South titles, going 49-15 in the regular season during that span, but are just 2-3 in the playoffs thus far. The Bears are 1-3 in their last four postseason games, starting with the Super Bowl XLI loss to Indianapolis back in 2007. Their two most recent playoff losses both happened at home and featured a double-doinked field goal in 2018 and an NFC Championship Game upset loss in the 2010 postseason courtesy of the archrival Green Bay Packers.
Chicago head coach Matt Nagy has led his team to the playoffs in two of his three seasons, but the only reason the Bears are in this year is because of an expanded field. There was plenty of talk about Nagy's job security when his team was stumbling through a six-game losing streak in the middle of this season. So a win on Sunday would only boost his current standing, at least with the fan base.
The expectations are different for New Orleans, however, who has made no secret of the fact that this season hinges on getting to the Super Bowl. The Saints have dealt with their own issues, including injuries to Brees and wide receiver Michael Thomas, but still find themselves in familiar territory – one of the top seeds in the playoffs with the opportunity to stay home for at least the first two rounds. But with reports circulating that Brees will retire after this season, New Orleans could be feeling even more urgency fearing their championship window is about to close. So which team will rise to the occasion on Sunday? The one possibly playing for its legacy or the one determined to prove it belongs on this stage?
New Orleans enters this game among the favorites to get to the Super Bowl and eager to put recent playoff disappointments in the rear-view mirror. Chicago enters this game fortunate to be in the playoffs thanks to an expanded field a Week 17 loss by Arizona that gave the Bears the tiebreaker.
The Bears will need a career effort from Mitchell Trubisky to pull off the upset on the road against the Saints' stout defense, especially if Chicago will be without one of its anchors on that side of the ball. New Orleans is tired of exiting the playoffs in such painful ways – such as a last-second touchdown, a controversial no-call, fluky turnovers – and for Drew Brees, this could be his last shot at getting back to the Super Bowl. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but for one week at least, any speculation about his possible retirement will have to wait.
Prediction: Saints 41, Bears 19
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.