The Bears broke through for their biggest win of the season, just four days after falling flat against the Colts. Their race for the playoffs is officially on.
The Bears aren’t chasing a Super Bowl, not realistically anyway, but they’ve got enough firepower to make this season interesting.
In by far their most convincing performance yet, they finished off the Buccaneers 20-19 on a 38-yard field goal by Cairo Santos with 1:17 left.
Even if they hadn’t pulled it off at the end, it was meaningful progress. Making Tom Brady sweat the whole night and going punch-for-punch with a very good opponent was stronger evidence than anything they showed while slipping past the Lions, Giants and Falcons — three teams with a combined 1-11 record.
The Bears faced a pivotal moment with everyone wondering whether they were headed into the same spiral that started at this time last season, and they showed the necessary urgency.
None more so than Nick Foles, who followed his dud of a game against the Colts with a suspect showing against the Bucs. He threw three near-interceptions on the second-to-last drive, then snapped back with a crucial 10-yard pass to convert a third-and-9 en rout to the winning field goal.
The Bears weren’t capable of anything like this last season. The Saints crushed them, the Packers embarrassed them (twice) and the Chiefs basically used them as a prop.
The loss to the Colts felt a little like that, but the Bears looked dramatically different Thursday.
The defense held the Bucs to their lowest point total of the season and stopped drives at its own 21-, 17-, 28- and 7-yard line to limit them into field goals.
Foles wasn’t great, but he wasn’t as lost as he looked the week before, and completed 30 of 42 passes for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception that wasn’t his fault. His 83.7 passer rating would’ve jumped to 97.6 had Allen Robinson not coughed up a would-be 20-yard pass for an interception in the first quarter
And while coach Matt Nagy must be running low on ideas by now, he’s not completely empty yet.
The playoffs are more attainable than ever this season, with seven spots in each conference. An eight-win team would’ve made it each of the last two seasons.
Over the last 30 seasons, a 3-0 start like the Bears had carried a 74% chance of making the playoffs. Obviously the chances are even greater with a larger field. And a 4-1 record bumps the Bears to 77% based on that data.
All it’ll take for the Bears to make the playoffs is to beat the very beatable teams remaining on their schedule. If they sneak one or two more unexpected wins like they did Thursday, they might even make a run at the Packers for the division.
Their pursuit continues next weekend at the Panthers after a nine-day break, and the pseudo-bye week is a fortuitous opportunity for Nagy and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to straighten out some issues:
— The “calibration” of this offense to fit Foles can’t drag out any longer. It needs to be full-go by the Carolina game.
— They need more of what made Khalil Mack (two sacks and another waved off because of a personal foul) so effective against the Bucs. That probably means playing Robert Quinn more.
— Nagy must reconfigure his offense to make better use of speedster Darnell Mooney, dynamic threat Cordarrelle Patterson and high-potential rookie Cole Kmet.
If the Bears get that in order, there’s a clear path to the playoffs. Their performance against the Bucs will almost certainly be enough against the Panthers (2-2), Vikings (1-3), Lions (1-3), Texans (0-4) and Jaguars (1-3). Going 5-1 or better in those games — they play Minnesota twice — would at least put them on the fringe of the postseason.
Speaking of recalibrating, that’s exactly what’s happening with expectations of the Bears. They’re capable of making a run to the playoffs, as they proved Thursday, and it’s unacceptable to go backward from here.