Bears coach Matt Nagy

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

Haugh: Bears Play To Win, Just As Nagy Said

Matt Nagy's approach Sunday was consistent with his actions all season.

David Haugh
December 30, 2018 - 8:31 pm
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(670 The Score) You don’t go 12-4 and become the surprise team in the NFC by doubting your instincts.

You don’t question your cozy relationship with risk if you truly place a higher value on the rewards, even if not everybody outside your coaching bubble agrees.

You don’t start second-guessing yourself now, in Week 17, not after receiving so much positive reinforcement for all those innovative ideas and creative calls with the cute names.

You don’t alter the approach that made the Bears – can you believe it, Chicago? – into legitimate Super Bowl contenders after so much irrelevance.

So, naturally on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Bears coach Matt Nagy followed his gut and kept his word by playing his starters into the second half of an impressive 24-10 victory over the Vikings. It was the right call because it was consistent with everything else Nagy has done since being hired.

After the Bears built a 10-point lead at halftime, conventional wisdom called for Nagy to avoid injuries by handing starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky a clipboard and giving defensive stars such as Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks the rest of the day off – except there has been little conventional about Nagy’s methods. Instead, Trubisky stuck around to engineer the offense’s longest drive of the season – a 16-play, 9:05 beauty – and the No. 1 defense stayed in long enough to send the Vikings fans to the exits midway through the fourth quarter. 

How appropriate that when Tarik Cohen scored a touchdown to make it 19-10 with 7:46 remaining, Nagy called for trickery on the two-point play, with Trubisky faking a handoff to cornerback Prince Amukamara and completing a pass to backup linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. Purple haze described the expressions on the faces of Vikings defenders after Kwiatkoski came down with the ball.

"I was going off my gut reaction," Nagy told reporters in Minneapolis. "It’s not easy. It wouldn’t feel good to lose a guy. That’s a valuable experience for me down the road."

Bernstein: Bears choose to close it out strong

Understandably, Nagy saw the value in Trubisky gaining experience against a good defense in hostile environment after the Vikings had cut the lead to three in the fourth quarter. He saw the value in eliminating an NFC North rival that would've been the Bears’ playoff opponent that knew his team best. He saw the value in heading into the postseason with momentum fueled by confidence, which permeates the Bears' culture. The story of the 2018 for the Bears revolves around Nagy being Nagy, and Sunday was no time to stop believing in the fun, 40-year-old risk-taker who has made anything possible again at Halas Hall.

"This is huge," said Nagy, who contrasted the postgame locker room scene after the Week 1 loss to the Packers with Sunday’s. "I told the guys, to see how far we’ve come as a family, there’s nothing like it."

Again Sunday, Nagy’s relentless faith was rewarded, as the Bears made the fourth-quarter cushion more comfortable and by the time the defensive starters were watching their backups play the last few series, Chicago was Googling Nate Sudfeld. Sudfeld is the third-string quarterback of the Eagles who was pressed into duty Sunday after Nick Foles left the victory over the Redskins with a rib injury. Ousting the Vikings opened the Soldier Field door to the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, the wild-card round opponent coached by Nagy pal Doug Pederson whose offense might not stand a chance against the Bears defense regardless of who plays quarterback.

Mack, Hicks and Co. arrived intent on playing like the outcome mattered, imposing their will on the Vikings early and often. The Bears front seven dominated the Vikings offensive line for the second straight game enough to make the thought of seeing the same overmatched unit again in the playoffs inviting. The Vikings managed a meager 164 total yards, with holes closing in the trenches and fissures developing on the sidelines. More than once, cameras caught Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins bickering with his receivers. It turned out familiarity with the Bears defense indeed bred contempt for Cousins. He looked pedestrian.

The Bears offense, meanwhile, greeted the Vikings in the best way possible – by hitting them in the mouths. Running behind right guard Kyle Long – starting for the first time since Oct. 28, in a welcome return – Jordan Howard broke loose for a 42-yard gain that said everything about the difference in the way both teams approached Week 17. Howard ran with authority, like every yard mattered. Vikings safety Harrison Smith, in contrast, retreated as Howard bore down on him and made a business decision to improve his angle rather than initiate contact.

If a single play ever encapsulated one game, this was it. Howard appeared playoff-ready with 109 yards on 21 carries as the offense possessed the ball for 37 minutes. Trubisky again avoided turnovers and efficiently completed 18 of 26 passes for 163 yards while throwing to a receiving corps beset with injuries. Tight end Trey Burton led the way with five catches and rookie seventh-rounder Javon Wims added four.

Kevin White even caught a pass, giving sports radio callers a reason to ask one of their favorite questions about White’s status. White only played because Allen Robinson missed the game with sore ribs, rookie Anthony Miller left the game in the first quarter with a shoulder injury and Taylor Gabriel – who caught four passes for 61 yards – also got hurt. But make no mistake: If White plays a role in next weekend’s playoff game, something has gone terribly wrong. His niche in Bears history remains the answer to the trivia question: Who was Ryan Pace’s first draft pick as general manager? A holding call by White that negated a big gain on a screen pass later supplanted White’s reception as his most impactful play of the game.

Speaking of miscues, Cody Parkey missed another extra point – his 10th crooked kick of the season. Trubisky mismanaged the play clock badly enough in the first half to burn a timeout and draw criticism from Troy Aikman in the FOX booth. And not every offensive drive included crispness and not every defensive series packed a punch. So, no, the Bears didn’t put together a perfect game, but they outplayed the Vikings on their home field. They checked the boxes for winning on the road that they needed to check. They showed more urgency than a team that faced a win-and-you’re-in de facto playoff game. They sharpened their edge when so many teams in similar situations have shown up flat.

They played to win just as Nagy pledged, providing the fitting end to a regular season defined by his promise.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show on 670 The Score weekdays from 5-9 a.m. Listen to the show here. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh and email him at david.haugh@entercom.com.​​​​​​​