Crown ‘em: Bears beat Packers, clinch NFC North title

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Our ears were hearing it, but our minds were struggling to comprehend.

“The Chicago Bears are your 2018 NFC North division champions.”

The proclamation was made and the standings reflected it. But it wasn’t until Mitch Trubisky’s knee hit the turf at Soldier Field on Sunday, winding down the final ten seconds of the Bears’ 24-17 victory over the Packers, that reality set in.

Bears own the NFC North Division

If Hollywood had written a script to emulate the Bears’ 2018 season to date, it wouldn’t have read much differently than what culminated on Sunday.

The Bears knocked off their chief rival, obliterating the proverbial green-and-gold monkey on their backs. They clinched a playoff spot, earning their first trip to the tournament since being ousted by — who else? — the Packers in the 2010 conference championship. And they secured the NFC North Division title, staking their claim to the top spot in one of the most competitive divisions in football.

A division, mind you, that the Packers have owned, winning it nine times in the 17-year history of the North.

In order to be a team that wins division titles and consistently makes playoff runs, you have to beat division opponents. In beating the Packers, the Bears extended their division record to 4-1 on the season.

Bears finished what they started in Week 1

Three months after the Bears suffered a historic collapse to the Packers, allowing a gimpy Aaron Rodgers to lead his team to a comeback victory in Week 1, the Bears finally put the Cheeseheads to bed.

Although the Bears are clearly the better team from top to bottom, it’d be foolish and naive to think that any contest with a Rodgers-led team is “in the bag” before it starts.

I marked this game as “Rodgers’ last stand” before kickoff, knowing that whatever slim playoff hopes the Packers had left could have essentially been squashed by the Bears (with a little help from the Vikings, too).

My fear — because I’ve seen it one too many times in the past decade — was that Rodgers had one more miracle left inside him. And even as the Bears held a 10-point lead with under one minute to play, I still wasn’t confident the game was in the bag just yet.

As we know, the media hails Rodgers as King of the Hail Mary’s.

But, unlike Week 1, the Bears finished the job on Sunday, thwarting the Packers’ onside kick attempt and closing out the game.

Bears do it with defense … again

The defense was so impressive on the lakefront on Sunday, stifling Rodgers in a way he’s usually not accustomed. The Bears sacked Rodgers five times and held him to just 274 passing yards and no touchdowns.

And that impressive streak of passing attempts without an interception came to a conclusion when Eddie Jackson picked off Rodgers in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.

The Bears’ stingy run defense also kept the Packers to just 88 yards on the ground, but gave up a rushing touchdown in the third quarter.

But to contain Rodgers as they did, allow one first-half field goal and keep them to 17 points on the day, was an impressive feat.

Offense efficient, if not explosive

The Bears might not have lit up the scoreboard on Sunday, but they were efficient and were right in line with the Packers’ season average for points allowed per game (23.6).

Trubisky completed 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with a 120.4 passer rating. Most importantly, he put last week’s dreadful performance behind him.

After the two teams traded punts to open the game, Trubisky led the Bears on a 9-play, 60-yard touchdown drive midway through the first quarter. Jordan Howard bolted untouched for a 9-yard score to take the early lead.

The teams again exchanged punts in what amounted to a lackluster first half.

Trubisky then led the offense in a proficient two-minute drill, driving 61 yards on five plays, capped off by a 12-yard touchdown pass to Tarik Cohen.

The way Cohen was able to turn the corner on the defense, tiptoe down the sideline and leap toward the end zone for the score was pure athleticism.

Bears offense struggles out of halftime

In the third quarter, the offense experienced a few hiccups.

On their first possession of the second half, Matt Nagy elected to run a fake punt at midfield. The Packers stuffed it, setting up Rodgers with great field position. Five players later, the Packers tied the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

The Bears had three options on that fourth-down play at midfield.

They could have punted, pinning Rodgers and company deep in their own end of the field. Nagy could have kept the offense out there and increased their chances of converting a first down. Or, they could have done what they did and ran the fake.

Of the three possibilities in that scenario, going for a fake punt was the worst option — in my opinion, of course. But who am I to second-guess Nagy?

The next time the Bears got the ball back, the offense faced a third-and-one at the Packers’ 23-yard-line. Rather than a plain ol’ boring, up-the-gut handoff to Jordan Howard, Nagy called a Wildcat formation, with Trubisky lining up outside and Cohen taking the direct snap. Cohen fumbled the exchange with Howard and the Bears lost possession.

Nagy is a creative genius, in my book. But when somebody tells me, “you have to take the good with the bad” in reference to Nagy’s gimmick plays, I don’t necessarily agree with that. There are moments to run those plays, and that instance was not one of them, in my opinion.

Offense finishes strong in fourth quarter

The Bears offense rebounded and scored twice more, kicking a field goal and scoring a touchdown in the final period.

After the Packers tied the game at 14, the Bears answered in kind. With the ball just across midfield, Trubisky led the Bears into the red zone before firing a perfect pass into the side of the end zone to Trey Burton for the go-ahead score.

On their next possession, the Bears tacked on a field goal for good measure, putting them up by 10 with a little over six minutes to play.

That’s when the defense stepped up and kept the Packers out of the end zone, cementing the victory.

Bears’ big victory comes with a caveat

If there was one moment from Sunday’s game that could put a damper on the chipper mood, it was watching safety Eddie Jackson limp off the field with an ankle sprain following his interception of Rodgers.

Seeing him lay on the Soldier Field turf and then hobble off with assistance was like a thorn on a rose. It was the fatty portion of an otherwise tasty piece of meat. It was like moving into your dream house, only to discover Packers fans living next door.

Fortunately — if there is a silver lining — Jackson’s injury was an ankle and not a knee. Given the shoddy nature of the Soldier Field turf, a blown knee would have been a logical conclusion.

We still don’t know the extent of the injury, but the hope is that it is a mild one and that he won’t have to miss too much time. Jackson arguably was playing at a Pro Bowl level this season and it’d be a shame to lose him so close to the playoffs.

Bears not mailing it in just yet

So, the Bears have clinched the North Division and are locked into the No. 3 seed. Good time to rest players for the playoffs, right?

Think again.

I don’t see Nagy taking his foot off the pedal in the final two weeks of the season, and for good reason.

For starters, there’s the off-chance the Bears have at securing a first-round bye. The Bears trail the Rams by just one game after L.A. was upset by the Eagles last night. And the Bears hold the tiebreaker over the Rams after beating them last week.

Although it doesn’t seem likely, if the Panthers beat the Saints at home on Monday night, the Bears draw within one game of New Orleans, as well.

Aside from playoff seeding, the other reason not to take lightly the final two weeks of the regular season is that Super Bowl champions get hot at the right time. They play their best football at the end of the season, not the beginning of it.

The Bears defense can’t exactly get any better than it already is. It would make sense to let Jackson sit out and rest his ankle as long as it takes to heal. But the offense could definitely use these next two games to hone its craft. This is only Year 1 of Nagy’s system and it needs all the game repetitions it can get to work on timing and rhythm.

The Bears can iron out their wrinkles next week against the 49ers — who are in the mix for the first pick in the 2019 draft. Then they might be in position to knock out division rival Minnesota from playoff contention to close the season.

If the Bears learned anything from the last time they were in the playoffs, it’s to remove obstacles when possible. They had a shot to keep the Packers out of the playoffs in Week 17, but failed to do so. Then they watched the Packers go on to win the Super Bowl.

Leaving the Vikings out of the postseason should be enough motivation to keep the Bears interested in Week 17.

Former high school and college kicker. Lifelong Chicago Bears fan. I've been writing about the navy blue and burnt orange since 2007. You can follow on Twitter, like it on Facebook, or email me.