Two of the NFL's hottest teams square off in Sunday's Wild Card Weekend finale
The Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles took very different paths to Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game. But they share one common thread that binds them together: Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.
It’s two Reid disciples — Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson — who square off this Sunday in a game that features two of the conference’s hottest teams. As a first-year head coach, Nagy produced a worst-to-first turnaround for the Bears in the NFC North. The former Chiefs offensive coordinator did it with defense, his team allowing a league-best 17.7 points per game while winning nine of their last 10 contests. A 12-4 record earned them their first division title (and playoff berth) in eight years.
The reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles, led by Pederson, Reid's former assistant in both Philadelphia and later Kansas City, enter the postseason scorching hot. They’ve won five of six and three in a row behind the steady play of backup quarterback Nick Foles, seeking a second straight season of magic. The Super Bowl LII MVP has led an offensive surge since the team’s only loss in this stretch, to the Cowboys left them at 6-7 and put an NFC East division title out of reach. But Foles came in and has helped the team produced 28.7 points per game in matchups that included two playoff teams (Rams and Texans) to get the Eagles’ season turned around.
Both coaches know each other well, the type of relationship in which you might say Nagy was almost a Pederson disciple himself. When Pederson was the offensive coordinator for Andy Reid’s Chiefs, Nagy was the Quality Control coach. The duo followed that pattern from the beginning of their careers, Nagy always sliding into the role Pederson left behind in Reid’s system.
“He got that Super Bowl,” Nagy said earlier this week. “I’m trying to follow his lead here.”
Can the Bears, a trendy Super Bowl pick, ride the exact same wave the Eagles did last year to an NFL championship? Or will Pederson still hold the upper hand in this coaching connection?
NFC Wild Card Playoff: Philadelphia at Chicago
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 6 at 4:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Bears -6
Three Things To Watch
1. Nick Foles' health
Foles left the Washington Redskins game early last Sunday with pain in his ribs. At the time, the game was well in hand, leaving Nate Sudfeld to throw his first career NFL touchdown pass in a 24-0 shutout win. But Sudfeld against the Bears, in any capacity? It’s hard to see the Eagles coming out on top.
The diagnosis for Foles was bruised ribs, not a break, leaving him in position to play Sunday. But pressure now mounts for the Eagles’ offensive line, a group that suffered through a season of inconsistency. Despite Sunday’s dominant performance by the team they still allowed three sacks to a Redskins defense with little to play for.
The Bears, whose defense produced an NFC-leading 50 sacks this year present a more serious challenge. Pro Bowl linebacker Khalil Mack is perhaps the best outside edge rusher in the NFL, leading the team in sacks (12.5), QB Hits (18) and forced fumbles (six).
“One on one, you’re not going to slow him down,” Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson said earlier this week. “It’s going to [force] you to do different things with tight ends, do different things with running backs. It can force you to change your thinking.”
Two tackles, 36-year-old Pro Bowler Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, will be tasked with keeping Mack at bay. Peters is one of the all-time greats but has shown his age at times this season, battling a myriad of injuries. Johnson has had a weird year, a yo-yo between a 9 out of 10 and a 2 on the performance scale depending on the week.
He’ll need to be a 10 for the Eagles to pull this one out. Foles can’t produce another miracle playoff run if he’s not capable of making it through four quarters of play. But if the Eagles protect, opportunities exist. The Bears ranked eighth in the NFL pass defense, a slight weakness (if you could call it that) and Foles has thrown for an average of 320 yards the past three weeks. The Eagles will drive down the field and score points.
2. The Bears' run vs. the Eagles' rush
The Eagles’ run defense took a hit in the second half of the season. Last year’s top-ranked unit slipped to seventh this season and struggled against marquee running backs. Division rivals Saquon Barkley (Giants), Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) and Adrian Peterson (Redskins) all had big games against their front line.
That bodes well for the Bears and their 1-2 punch of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. The duo ran roughshod over the Vikings in the season finale, piling up 133 yards between them on the ground in a game that ironically opened the door for the Eagles to make the playoffs. The Bears overall have rushed for 100-plus yards in five of the past six games.
But the last week against the Redskins was also the Eagles’ best defensive effort of the year. They allowed just 89 net yards of total offense and held the ‘Skins to 21 yards rushing, a measly 1.8 yards per carry. Peterson could never get going and finished with exactly zero yards on four carries, just one month after torching the Eagles with a 90-yard touchdown run.
This battle on the front lines will be crucial early on as the Bears hope to build a lead, limiting the pressure on young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Defensive stalwarts Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Jordan Hicks have to come together and make big plays early and often.
3. Mitchell Trubisky's postseason debut
Trubisky, in just his second year in the league, will prepare to make his home playoff debut after an up-and-down regular season under center. Missing time with a shoulder injury in November, he’s had a history of struggling against top-tier opponents.
The Bears played three playoff teams this season: Seattle, New England and the Los Angeles Rams. Trubisky threw for 300-plus yards in just one of those games (New England) while throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Bears did hold on to win two of those games, utilizing their defense that produced a league-best 36 turnovers. But you’re less likely to have that type of margin of error in a playoff game, even with Foles averaging one turnover himself per contest.
Can Trubisky lead a game-winning drive when it matters? Your answer to that question should decide which way you swing in what’s bound to be the most competitive game on Wild Card Weekend.
X-Factor: Special Teams
Former Eagles kicker Cody Parkey was a bit shaky down the stretch with the Bears. He missed four of his last six kicks and never hit one longer than 50 yards this season. Jake Elliott, meanwhile, hit 14 of his final 15 after the Eagles’ bye week. He’s hit from 56 yards this season and has shown some range far beyond that, as evidenced by his franchise-record 61-yarder to win against the Giants last year.
That gives a slight edge to the Eagles on what’s supposed to be a cold, blustery day at Soldier Field. Winds are forecast out of the East at 10-15 miles an hour with stronger gusts. In a close game, particularly a defensive battle, Elliott could make a difference down the stretch.
The Bears have the edge heading in with both momentum and talent. But the Eagles have what’s become this unshakable faith in Nick Foles. The backup Super Bowl MVP (how often has that sentence been written in NFL history) sits at 6-0 in must-win games with Carson Wentz on the sidelines. If he could beat the Rams on the road, a team the Bears also disposed of down the stretch, this one also feels winnable.
The key is for him to stay on the field for all four quarters. But if the Bears' defense can be kept at bay just enough, forcing Mitchell Trubisky to win the game for them the edge should go to the experience of last year’s Super Bowl champs.
Prediction: Eagles 20, Bears 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of www.phiadelphiaealges.com)