LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears enter the postseason with nothing to lose.
Gone are the feel-good days of September and October when the Bears raced out to a 5-1 record and sat atop the NFC North. What ensued over the final 10 weeks of the regular season ranks among the franchise’s worst all-time collapses.
The Bears went from division contender to NFC also-ran in the blink of an eye during a six-game losing streak that dropped Chicago out of playoff contention until a late-season surge against inferior competition (Houston, Minnesota, Jacksonville).
Even after the Bears had reclaimed control of their own destiny entering Week 17, Matt Nagy’s club went on to lose 35-16 to Green Bay and had to rely on an undermanned Los Angeles Rams team to beat the Arizona Cardinals and back into Sunday’s matchup at New Orleans (4:40 pm ET) as the conference’s seventh and final seed.
“We got nothing to lose,” Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky said on Wednesday.
“We know everybody is overlooking us. They have the back half of the season. I think we have been just playing with that edge, that chip on our shoulder. ... We've got to be locked into the small details of our game plan and our job descriptions and just play hard and play with a lot of passion and will. And if we do that, I think we’ll give ourselves a good chance.”
The Bears have no one to blame but themselves for their current predicament. The lack of league-wide respect is rooted in the reality the Bears defeated only one team (Tampa Bay in Week 5) with an above-.500 record. That lone victory happened with Nick Foles at quarterback, not Trubisky. Chicago appeared overmatched in losses against Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Tennessee and twice versus Green Bay.
“Well, we got to the playoffs,” Bears receiver Allen Robinson said. “I think that’s everybody’s goal is to start there."
That seems to be the Bears' sentiment, not whether they deemed the season a success.
"I know it wasn’t a 12-4 season like we had a couple of years ago," Robinson said. "I know last year we went 8-8 and didn’t get to the playoffs, and we went 8-8 again this year and we got to the playoffs. So again, we gave ourselves a shot."
To be sure, making the playoffs two of three years is serious business for the Bears, who last reached the postseason in back-to-back seasons in 2005-06. Chicago has qualified for the playoffs just six times since the turn of the century. The last time the label "perennial playoff team" applied to the Bears was 30-plus years ago when former coach Mike Ditka had a perm.
Any Bears playoff appearance is meaningful (because they are infrequent), but to win inside the Superdome for the first time since 1991, the Bears must rely on Trubisky and the offense to carry their defense -- which has gotten very ordinary -- across the finish line.
Chicago’s defense used to be its bedrock, but the group played run-of-the-mill football down the stretch. Chuck Pagano’s defense ended the year ranked 14th in points allowed per game and 11th in total yards per game -- hardly what was expected when the season began.
“We did enough to get into the dance, but we definitely know we have to raise our level of play on defense,” Bears safety Tashaun Gipson said.
Without question, Trubisky performed better after Nagy reinserted him in the starting lineup Nov. 29. However, Trubisky's "progress," made largely against struggling teams like the Texans, Vikings, Jaguars and Lions, was countered by shaky numbers in the pair of defeats to the Packers. In those games, the 26-year-old quarterback threw three touchdown passes and committed four turnovers.
To offer even the illusion the Bears are headed in the right direction in 2021, they need a respectable outing in New Orleans, especially on offense, and particularly at quarterback, where Trubisky’s expiring contract is a cloud that hangs over the offseason.
The underdog, David vs. Goliath narrative might be all Nagy has left.
“We started off at 5-1, then we hit that six-game stretch, then we won three in a row, and then you lose to the Packers in the last game of the season in a big division game that means a lot," Nagy said on Wednesday. "You end up 8-8 and you realize you’re playing a team that has a ton of playoff experience at the head coach position and quarterback position, let alone the rest of their staff and players. So when you look at that, you can understand where people are coming from."