Bears hold off late Panthers push, extend record to 5-1

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The Bears defeated the Carolina Panthers, 23-16, on Sunday to improve their record to 5-1. Paired with the Packers’ loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the win puts the Bears in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

This game appeared destined for a Bears victory when the schedule was released in the spring, and it never seemed seriously in doubt at any point on Sunday. But for as much in control as the Bears might have been, it’s a bit discouraging they couldn’t pull away for good.

Bears take control from first drive of the game

A penalty on the opening kickoff pushed the Panthers back to their own 10-yard line to start the game. Bilal Nichols sacked Teddy Bridgewater on second down inside the 1-yard line, nearly recording a safety. But on the very next play, Bridgewater was intercepted by Tashaun Gipson, giving the Bears offense the ball at the 7-yard line.

The Bears looked a bit discombobulated on their initial possession. Foles completed a one-yard pass to Jimmy Graham, which was followed by a two-yard run from David Montgomery. On third-and-goal from the four, the Bears called a timeout and then inexplicably were penalized for a delay of game.

Fortunately, on third down Foles completed a 9-yard strike to rookie tight end Cole Kmet for the early touchdown.

The Panthers answered back with a 14-play, 72-yard drive capped off by a field goal. It was good on the Bears defense for keeping them out of the end zone, but they have to try to get off the field quicker if they’re going to give their offense more time on the field to get into a rhythm.

After the two teams exchanged punts, the Bears and Panthers then alternated field goals with the Bears netting two and the Panthers one. The Bears took a 13-6 lead into halftime.

Bears finally score third quarter points

It seems indefensible that in the modern era of NFL football, a team can go five weeks without scoring in the third quarter. But alas, that’s what the Bears had done prior to Sunday.

Against the Panthers, they almost made it six weeks.

The Bears got the ball to open the second half and punted six plays later. On the ensuing possession, the Bears forced and recovered a fumble. Unfortunately, Foles threw an interception on the very next play, giving the ball right back to the Panthers.

The Bears got the ball back with about six minutes to play, facing the prospect of another scoreless third period. But Foles and the Bears offense found a rhythm and marched the ball 56 yards on 10 plays to the Panthers’ goal line.

Montgomery ran the ball on two consecutive plays from the 1-yard line, getting stopped short both times. Foles punched the ball in on third down with a quarterback sneak and the Bears — finally! — put third-quarter points on the board.

At that point, the Bears were up 20-6 late in the third quarter and there was the slightest hint of them starting to pull away.

Unfortunately, the Panthers had other plans.

Panthers mount fourth quarter comeback

Early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers completed a 9-play, 75-yard drive in which they converted two fourth downs — one from a Bears penalty and one from a 3-yard rush from running back Mike Davis.

Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson was called for defensive pass interference — a very sketchy call — near the end zone. One play later, Davis punched the ball into the end zone to narrow the gap.

The Bears and Panthers exchanged field goals to make the game 23-16 midway through the fourth quarter. When the Bears offense came back onto the field, you had hoped they would be able to sustain a long drive and try to milk away the clock, if not put even more points on the board.

Instead, the Bears converted one first down and then punted it away to give the Panthers a shot at a game-tying drive.

The Panthers, as they had been doing for much of the game, were taking what the defense gave them and moving the ball. After an 8-play, 45-yard drive, the Panthers gave the ball away when a fourth down pass from Bridgewater to D.J. Moore slipped out of the receivers’ hands. Moore was wide open on the play, giving the Bears a much-needed break.

Bears again need to rely on defense to finish the job

It would be nice if the Bears offense could join the party and go out and cement a victory with a sustained fourth-quarter drive.

After the Panthers’ turnover on downs, the Bears had the ball with under two minutes to play. All they needed was one first down and the game was in the bag. Instead, they ran the ball twice with Montgomery, setting up a third-and-two. The Bears could have ran the ball on third down and forced the Panthers to take their final timeout. But Matt Nagy decided to be aggressive and throw for a first down. Foles’ pass to Allen Robinson fell incomplete and the Bears had to punt.

The Panthers offense came back onto the field with a minute and a half to play and one timeout. Fortunately for the Bears, Bridgewater’s pass to Moore was intercepted by DeAndre Houston-Carson, who made his second game-clinching play in as many weeks.

Foles kneeled on the ball three times and the Bears secured the victory.

Bears offense has work to do, but at what point are they who we thought they were?

As the late great Dennis Green once said, “The Bears are who we thought they were!”

At some point, we might need to come to grips with the fact that this offense is exactly what we thought it was. The Bears are in the bottom six teams in points per game so far this year. Conversely, their defense is in the top six in points per game allowed.

Can you imagine just how good this team would be if the offense were even half as good as the defense is?

Yes, the Bears are still 5-1. It is difficult to win games in the NFL, so they don’t have to apologize for winning five of six games. But we see with our own eyes what other NFL teams are doing. The Bears, thus far, have been fortunate to receive outstanding performances from the defense. But if and when they meet up with a high-scoring team, the offense is going to have to pull its weight, and 21 points per game isn’t going to get the job done.

Bears enter “Murderers’ Row” of their schedule

Here we go, Bears fans. The rather tame portion of the Bears schedule has passed, and the team did its job by winning five of six.

Now, the Bears enter arguably the toughest portion of their schedule. They begin next week with a Monday night matchup at the Rams, who have looked quite explosive in spite of their loss to the 49ers last night. The Bears follow that up with a home game against the imposing Saints, and then a road trip to Tennessee to face a currently-unbeaten Titans team. The Bears will face a beatable Vikings team in Week 10, followed by a Week 11 bye, before taking on the tough Green Bay Packers.

We’ll know at that point, as the Bears enter December, what kind of team they really are. Barring a complete collapse in the next five games, the Bears should be headed for the playoffs this year.

But once they get there, will they make any noise? Or will the offense cause them to fizzle out? Let’s find that out during this tough stretch.

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.