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10 takes after a big Bears road win in Carolina

The Bears improved to 5-1 on Sunday after a 23-16 win on the road against the Panthers. While things weren’t pretty and the offense is still struggling, there’s reason for optimism.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Ugly or not, the Chicago Bears find themselves at 5-1 after a 23-16 win on the road against the Carolina Panthers. This isn’t the type of win that will silence the critics. Regardless of how the final score looks, this is a first place team after six weeks and one that hasn’t come close to playing their best football on the year.

1. Winning ugly is still better than losing pretty

During the post-game press conference, quarterback Nick Foles said it best.

“Would you rather lose pretty or win ugly? I think that we’d rather win ugly.” While that may be an obvious statement, some people are more worried about critiquing those wins rather than seeing them as a 5-1 team.

The Bears defense isn’t quite elite (yet) but they are damn good and getting better each week. The offense isn’t remotely good enough but they are finding ways to do enough to win games when it counts.

Over time, the obvious expectation will be that this team finds a way to put it all together. Last week was Foles’ second full week of practice with the first team and he’s won three of four of the games he’s played in. The running game is an obvious issue and Foles’ streakiness is somewhat unnerving, too. Even so, this is a 5-1 team that is finding ways to win games, rather than finding ways to lose them. That’s a big difference, even from their 2018 campaign. This should not be discounted because one would think the best is still yet to come.

2. Say hello to your first place Bears

Heading into Week 6, the Bears were a half a game out of first place and the Green Bay Packers looked like an unstoppable force. During Sunday’s proceedings, the Bears took care of business and were able to sit back and watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take it to the Packers after falling behind by 10 points early in the game.

The Bears went into the day in second place and will head into Week 7 in first place. While I’m not sure that’s something that will last over the course of the season because I still believe the Packers are a very good team, it’s worth enjoying for the week. It also may give some a bigger appreciation for the Bears’ hot start.

It’s worth mentioning that the Bears’ playoff odd’s (based on the last 10 years) are now at 90 percent. It would have dropped to 69 percent with a loss.

3. Don’t discount a hot conference start

Before jumping into first place on Sunday night, it appeared the Bears would have to take the Wild Card route in order to get into the playoffs. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL added an extra playoff team in each conference, leaving three Wild Card spots to fight for over the course of 16 games.

While fans should enjoy the Bears being in first place for the time being, I tend to believe that they’ll end up vying for one of those three wild card spots. Sometimes getting into the playoffs can come down to something as simple as tie-breakers, especially when a team doesn’t win their division. That’s where the Bears’ hot start within the NFC comes in.

Not only are they 5-0 within the conference, they hold tie-breakers over both the Panthers and Buccaneers. On top of that, they have games against the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints over the next two weeks. All five teams should be competing for playoff spots. While it’s likely that at least one will win their division, that leaves one of these teams as a possible odd man out in a Wild Card scenario.

Head-to-head is always going to come first in most tie-breaking scenarios but conference records come next. With one win over their next two games, it would all but guarantee the Bears almost all favorable tie-breaking scenarios if they end up needing to get in as a Wild Card.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

4. Khalil Mack is still the team’s best defensive player

After a slow start to the season, some were doubting whether or not Mack was the same player the team traded for before the 2018 season opener. Over the last two weeks, Mack has accounted for three sacks and has been the typical game wrecker everyone was accustomed to seeing.

On top of Mack’s dominance, Robert Quinn continues to pressure the quarterback. While that hasn’t translated to sacks yet, I expect it to soon. All in all, the Bears’ pass rush has ramped up as of late. That’s very good news for a defense that will need to be as close to elite as possible to keep this team in games until the offense figures it out.

5. Despite a strong start, the offense needs to figure it out soon

It’s yet another obvious statement but one has to wonder: How long can the Bears keep winning games with an anemic offense?

Granted the Bears have been facing better teams as of late and they are 2-1 over those games. But I’m not sure they can continue to stay afloat in the win column without drastically better offensive production. That improvement starts with head coach Matt Nagy and the play-calling.

Not only has the Bears’ scheme become more predictable over the last few weeks, the excuses are running thin in regards to their lack of run game and overall minimal scoring output.

Is it time for Nagy to give up play calling? A serious conversation about that should be rapidly approaching. This is something the Bears absolutely have to get figured out because while they have won games, it’s hard to imagine they can continue to win games while averaging just over 21 points-per-game. In a league where the top half of the league is averaging almost a touchdown more per game, the margin for error is too thin.

6. The Bears snapped yet another bad streak on Sunday

Going into Week 6, the Bears were 0-5 coming off long weeks (10 days or more in between games). That was snapped with Sunday’s win over Carolina. More importantly, they didn’t come out of the gate flat. Which is something they’ve done far too often in the past three seasons in these situations.

That’s another big change we’ve seen from this team under Nagy in 2020. The bigger test will come for the Bears after their Week 11 bye week when they face the Packers in Green Bay. But having 10 days off and playing on the road is never easy. To get a win against a Panthers team that had won three in a row under those circumstances is another sign of the Bears’ growth.

7. Jaylon Johnson’s “Welcome to the NFL, rookie” moment finally arrived

Heading into Week 6, Johnson had been highly impressive for a rookie cornerback and had yet to experience a truly poor outing. On Sunday that changed. Despite having two pass breakups (one that led to the team’s first interception), he was called for multiple penalties, cooked multiple times down field by D.J. Moore and was picked on all day by a high-powered Panthers offense.

Is this performance a cause for concern? Absolutely not. Cornerback is one of those positions where rookies usually face a rough adjustment period and by and large, this was the rookie’s first real obstacle he had to overcome.

Despite all the bad that happened on Sunday, Johnson had some bright spots and he’s still surrounded by plenty of talent in a loaded secondary. I see this as more of a speed bump for the first-year player, rather than any cause for concern.

NFL: New York Giants at Chicago Bears Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

8. It may be time to give Cairo Santos the job for the remainder of 2020

Count me as one of the multiple skeptics on Santos as the Bears named him their kicker as the started out the year. Eddy Pineiro’s groin injury has not healed enough and in the meantime, Santos has been impressive outside of one questionable game earlier in the year.

On Sunday against Carolina, Santos was perfect on his kicks and routinely kicked the ball far enough in the end zone to force touchbacks. Plus, he set a new career long with his 55-yarder going into the half. Not only was the kick right down the middle, it had a few yards to spare. This was the second straight week that Santos hit a kick over 40 yards, which is something he had severely struggled with dating back to 2016.

Here’s to hoping Santos’s career revitalization continues.

9. It’s time to call Lamar Miller up from the practice squad and see what he has to offer

The Bears faced one of the league’s worst run defenses and ran for just 63 yards, while averaging a measly (2.5) yards-per-carry. While some of that is on the offensive line and some of that is on Nagy and his overall scheme, it doesn’t excuse the performance.

The Bears need to do something different and it needs to happen in a hurry. They do have Miller on the practice squad and he should be in game shape by now. It’s time to call him up and see what he has to offer, even if it’s situationally for the time being.

I’m not going to say David Montgomery has been bad but I do think he has lacked vision at times and is still spinning his wheels far too much before actually hitting his holes. That has caused him to lose yardage, which already comes at a premium for a struggling offense.

Miller has more burst and fits exactly what running backs coach Charles London likes in his players. I’m not saying to give him 15-20 carries a game, but the Bears have been missing a key piece to this run game since Tarik Cohen went down. They need to do a better job in trying to replace it.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

10.1 Did anyone see the Minnesota Vikings falling off as bad as they have?

Don’t get me wrong, I was never overly high on the Vikings heading into 2020. They made it clear (outside of the Yannick Ngakoue move) that they were re-tooling and their focus was more on the future than it was for this season. Even so, this was a playoff team in 2019 and that had plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. Yet after six weeks, they find themselves at 1-5 after being blown out by an Atlanta Falcons team that came into Week 6 winless after having fired their general manager and head coach.

There’s plenty of season left but it’s looking more like the Vikings will be vying for a top-10 pick, rather than contending for a playoff spot. While the Detroit Lions aren’t a great team, it appears their time in the NFC North cellar may be done for the 2020 season.

10.2 Looking ahead to next Monday night, the Los Angeles Rams are beatable despite Vegas’ odds for the game

To put it bluntly, the Rams were dominated by a San Francisco 49ers that struggled mightily going into Sunday Night’s game. As we know, the NFL is a week-to-week league and performances don’t always translate each game. But the Rams present as beatable despite Las Vegas’s opening the Bears up as 6.5 point underdogs.

The key in Week 7 will be protecting Foles from a top-end pass rush and forcing Jared Goff into holding the ball and making throws with pressure in his face. For the most part, this is a very similar Rams game-plan that we’ve seen the past three years. A 6-1 overall record with a 6-0 mark within the conference would be tremendous for all playoff and division hopes, especially on another national stage.