Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky celebrates after Chicago clinched the NFC North crown.

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Haugh: Bears Thinking Big After Clinching NFC North

"We know we want more," coach Matt Nagy says.

David Haugh
December 16, 2018 - 5:38 pm
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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- As the Bears triumphantly left the field after their 24-17 victory over the Packers that clinched the NFC North title, left tackle Charles Leno Jr. lingered to take care of Sunday’s biggest assignment.

Leno pulled out a ring as part of an elaborate plan and proposed to his girlfriend, Jen, who said yes, saving him from calling an audible every man dreads.

"What a perfect moment to do it," a smiling Leno said. "She was surprised. She was shaking, she was crying. It’s easily up there as one of the best days of my life."

It was a day for celebrating long-term commitments at Soldier Field.

Before Leno got engaged, the Bears married Chicago to the idea that they intend on staying awhile atop the division and going from worst to first under 40-year-old rookie coach Matt Nagy is no fly-by-night affair. The foundation of every NFL contender’s relationship with winning exists in a strong defense, and once again Khalil Mack and Co. dominated in a way that created pure bliss for fans of our city’s beloved football team.

Indeed, the Bears look like they’re in this for the long haul after finding Mr. Right last January.

"How cool is this?" Nagy asked.

Bernstein: Defense seals NFC North crown for Bears

How much cooler for Nagy and his team that the clincher came against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, practically an honorary McCaskey for how he has owned the Bears. How fitting that the Bears sealed their first playoff appearance in eight years when safety Eddie Jackson intercepted Rodgers – who hadn't thrown an interception in an NFL-record 402 passes dating back to Week 2 – with 3:04 remaining in a game that symbolized a changing of the guard.

In Week 1, cornerback Kyle Fuller dropped a sure of pick from Rodgers that influenced the outcome, but this time Jackson seized the ball out of the air – and opportunity away from the Packers. Given the Bears' youth and Rodgers' age – he turned 35 earlier in December – it’s fair to wonder if one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks will win another division title. Or, as one sign in the South Lot suggested more bluntly: “CHEESE GETTING MOLDY.’’’

"It’s actually what I told (Brett) Favre when I was talking to him in the offseason," Rodgers said. "I understand a little bit more what it was like for him to be 36, 37 in the locker room, feel closer to the trainers and equipment guys because all the guys you kind of grew up playing with are gone."

The young upstart Bears, on the other hand, paired another magnificent performance from Mack with a bounce-back effort from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. In three months since Week 1, the Packers never devised a way to block Mack, who had 2.5 sacks to raise his total to 12.5 – the highest Bears single-season mark since Richard Dent had 13.5 in 1993. One of Mack’s sacks came when he backed forcefully into Rodgers despite being held by offensive tackle Jason Spriggs, a show of sheer force and will.

As for Trubisky, he came off a clunker against the Rams to complete 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 120.4. He exhibited more efficiency than explosiveness to regain confidence he lost. He rebounded and responded. He resembled a playoff quarterback.

"I feel like it was solid," Trubisky said in an ugly, blinking Christmas sweater.

Trubisky showed better judgment in the pocket, consistently escaping pressure with instincts and athleticism. The first example came on third-and-7 in the second quarter at the Bears’ 36-yard line when Trubisky eluded blitzing safety Eddie Pleasant, who was unblocked, and bought enough time to find tight end Adam Shaheen for a 23-yard completion. Two other plays revealed even more.

On third-and-10 with less than four minutes left in the third quarter, Trubisky scrambled for 14 yards on a run that displayed as much quickness as awareness. On the same drive, Trubisky outran Packers pass rusher Clay Matthews in chase to side-arm a 15-yard completion to receiver Taylor Gabriel. The lasting impression came on a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton with 10:16 left in the game that excited Nagy enough to immediately grab Trubisky’s facemask when he came to the sideline.

"I told him that’s a throw he just made with conviction," Nagy said. "When he does that, he’s tough to stop."

When Trubisky protects the football and makes enough plays with his feet to keep the chains moving, so are the Bears. They controlled this game except for the brief time Nagy provided hope for the Packers.

Momentum swung with 6:30 left in the third quarter with the Bears leading 14-6 and facing fourth-and-2 at the Packers’ 49. Rather than go for it conventionally with his offense, Nagy attempted a fake punt that the Packers sniffed out like everybody from the press box to Palatine. The direct snap to Benny Cunningham went nowhere, giving the Packers the ball and a needed spark. Five plays later, Packers running back Jamaal Williams found room around right end for a 10-yard touchdown run. The successful two-point conversion pass to Davante Adams tied the game at 14 and raised the question: Did the coach with the big offensive brain outsmart himself?

The Bears likely faced better odds handing the ball to Jordan Howard on fourth-and-2 than taking the risk involved in a fake. Nagy’s decision allowed the Packers back into a game the Bears had under control. The Packers had no reason to think they could win the game until Nagy gave them one. The overcoaching extended into the next series on third-and-short for the Bears. Trubisky went into motion and lined up wide left as a receiver, leaving Tarik Cohen to take the snap out of the Wildcat formation. Cohen fumbled the snap and the Packers recovered at their own 23, snuffing the Bears’ drive and reviving hope.

You might say Nagy’s coaching inspired the Packers more Sunday than interim coach Joe Philbin’s. One Sunday’s resourcefulness is next week’s recklessness, a fascinating fact of life in the Nagy era. It goes with the territory.

"I told you at times we’d be aggressive," Nagy said. "Those are the ones you’re going to come up here and crush me after a loss, and I understand that."

Thank goodness for the Bears that Nagy resisted his inner risk-taker leading 21-14 and facing fourth-and-1 from the 6. Instead of going for it, Nagy correctly called for Cody Parkey to kick a 24-yard field goal and make it a two-possession game. Even with Rodgers at quarterback, a 10-point lead with 6:46 left qualified as insurmountable.

At last, the Bears ended what WBBM-AM play-by-play man Jeff Joniak called an "anguishing absence from the playoffs." At 10-4 and as division champs, the Bears remain insatiable, a fact reinforced to Nagy after all the dancing and shouting had stopped inside the postgame locker room party known as “ClubDub.’’

"The one thing that I thought was really cool was that they know we’re not finished, that we want to continue to keep doing what we’re doing and not be satisfied and content with this," Nagy said. "We know we want more."

Apparently, the Bears still believe in happily ever after.

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 [email protected].​​​​​​​