(CBS Chicago) — The Chicago Bears, at 8-8, may be as surprised as anyone about being in the playoffs. The Bears backed into the postseason on the final Sunday despite losing to the Green Bay Packers. The final wild card spot gives them the honor of facing the second-seeded Saints in New Orleans. Whether or not the 12-4 Saints will have all the weapons that helped them get here is another story.
The Saints had long since wrapped up a playoff spot by Week 17. They had also already won the NFC South, holding a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints still demolished the Carolina Panthers, 33-7, on the off chance the Bears could somehow upset the Packers and propel the Saints into the top seed. And they did it without Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, who had been moved to the COVID-19/Reserve list after Kamara tested positive, and Michael Thomas, who was out with an ankle injury. A Chicago win would’ve given a first-round bye to New Orleans. It wasn’t to be.
The Saints edged out the Bears by a field goal in their Week 8 matchup. Nick Foles led a fourth-quarter comeback to tie up the game and force overtime. He tossed a couple of touchdown passes, including one late to Darnell Mooney to pull is team within a field goal. Foles finished the game 28-41 for 272 yards, but was also sacked five times and threw one of the worst interceptions you’re ever likely to see.
Foles won’t be starting this time around, with Mitchell Trubisky once again leading the Bears. But his counterpart, Drew Brees, will be. Brees completed 31 of his 41 pass attempts in Week 8 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Kamara was his best weapon, with nine catches for 96 yards and another 67 yards on 12 carries.
Brees has started to show his age this season. And a mid-season rib injury certainly didn’t help. The offense still averaged 30.8 points per game, fifth best in the league, but his passing yardage were down. “Drew Brees isn’t even the Drew Brees of old, with the arm that he’s had, and he doesn’t need to be,” according to NFL On CBS lead reporter Tracy Wolfson. “He’s just a brilliant mind, he’s got that veteran experience, he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback and he has playmakers around him that can make the plays, so he doesn’t have to do too much.”
What playmakers those will be is still unclear. Kamara could potentially miss the game, unless he tests negative for COVID on Sunday. And even then, he will have missed out on a week of preparation. Murray’s status is also uncertain until he’s cleared. Thomas, however, has returned from injured reserve and seems on track to play.
“The job that Sean Payton has done, he doesn’t get enough credit for it,” says Wolfson. “Certainly should be considered in National Coach of the Year conversations for what he has been able to do. I think Michael Thomas and Drew Brees have played just 10 quarters together this whole entire season. That is incredible. It’s just next-man-up mentality, and he’s been able to utilize those guys, get that depth that he needed. Look how he took Ty Montgomery and placed him into a role last week, he had over 100 yards, and you didn’t miss Alvin Kamara at all. What he has been able to do has been incredible.”
It’s unclear what Bears team will show up. They lost six straight games in the middle of the season, only to win three in a row and climb back into the wild card hunt. And then they were crushed by the Packers in Week 17.
“I think it’s up to Matt Nagy and the captains of this team and the leadership to say we have to put that behind us and feel like we belong here,” says Wolfson. “We belong, we can play with the Saints. I think Mitchell Trubisky has been doing a really good job since he’s come back. The key for him is to just don’t try and do too much. That’s going to be key for them. Establishing the run with (David) Montgomery, who’s really done a good job down the stretch. Establishing that run and then allowing Mitchell Trubisky to get out of the pocket and utilize his legs, but not do too much.”
David Montgomery surpassed 1,000 yards on the season, and has been utilized more of late. His most productive showing came against a tough Minnesota Vikings defense a few weeks ago, when he put up 146 yards and two TDs on 32 carries. He had 20-plus carries each of the last three games, but only once in the previous 13.
Trubisky has seemingly benefitted from an offensive attack that relies a little more on the run. “I am interested to see how this Chicago team comes out and how Mitchell Trubisky plays,” says Wolfson. “The spotlight that has been on him and Matt Nagy and these decisions and who’s the quarterback, and who’s the quarterback of the future. I am curious how this Chicago team comes out from the start to play. I do think if they can not make the mistakes, if they can hang in there, if their offensive line can handle this pass rush, they have a shot to be able to move the ball and run the ball.”
It won’t be easy. The much-improved Saints defense has been stifling against both the run and the pass. And a lot of the credit goes to the defensive line. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson has notched 13.5 sacks, third best in the NFL. Cameron Jordan has added 7.5 more. Demario Davis has grown into one of the league’s better linebackers as well, tallying 119 tackles on the season.
The Bears play the Saints, Sunday, January 10 @ 4:40 p.m. ET on CBS.