Chicago Bears Assert Themselves as Kings of the NFC North

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 19, 2018

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 18:  Danny Trevathan #59 and Khalil Mack #52 of the Chicago Bears celebrate after a tackle on the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter at Soldier Field on November 18, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

If you weren't convinced the Chicago Bears were the real deal when they moved to 3-1 with a 48-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or when they completed their second three-game winning streak of the 2018 regular season with a double-digit Week 10 victory over the desperate Detroit Lions, Sunday night's statement victory over the Minnesota Vikings should do the trick. 

Those left questioning the new-look Bears would be wise to consider just how close 7-3 Chicago is to 10-0. This team has lost its three games by one score each and 11 points altogether.

The first loss came when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers made a miraculous comeback to earn a one-point victory at Lambeau Field. The second came when the Miami Dolphins made a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Chicago in overtime in South Florida. The third came when the New England Patriots needed two special teams touchdowns to edge the Bears 38-31 at Soldier Field.

There were plenty of self-inflicted wounds in those games, and a more experienced team might have won all three. But that's what's so scary about these Bears. 

They're only becoming more experienced, more battle-tested, more resilient. 

The early-season Bears might not have held on under the circumstances that arose Sunday night against the Vikings. But there was second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky—faced with a 3rd-and-8 at his own 27-yard line just minutes after the defending NFC North champions cut Chicago's lead to one score late in the fourth quarter—throwing a 17-yard dart to Allen Robinson II for a crucial first down on the game-icing drive. 

Trubisky, who carried the ball 10 times for 43 yards and ranks first among quarterbacks in that discipline, followed that up with a five-yard run that drew a penalty for a late hit and led to a field goal that gave his team an insurmountable lead on the way to the 25-20 win. 

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The sometimes-mistake-prone 24-year-old threw a pair of interceptions Sunday night, but Bears head coach Matt Nagy trusted his quarterback on that crucial drive and it paid off. 

It was a sign this team believes in itself and trusts its talent. 

Ditto for when the Bears sent kicker Cody Parkey out there for the game-clinching field goal at the conclusion of said drive. There was talk that they might have been better off going for it on that 4th-and-4 at the Minnesota 30-yard line, but Parkey was given a shot to extend Chicago's lead to two scores with a 48-yard attempt. 

He, too, came through, completing a 3-of-3 night seven days after infamously hitting the upright four times in that victory over Detroit. 

Put it all together, and you have a potentially galvanizing performance for a young squad that now leads the North by 1.5 games and possesses the head-to-head tiebreaker over the division's only other above-.500 team. The Bears have won back-to-back divisional games for the first time in six years, and they've now outscored their divisional opponents by 16 points in three games this season. 

The Vikings will still have a shot, especially since they face the Bears at home in Week 17, but they're a mere 4-4-1 dating back to Week 2. The Minnesota offense hasn't taken off like expected with Kirk Cousins under center and Dalvin Cook back, and the Vikings face a tough schedule down the stretch (highlighted by back-to-back road games in New England and Seattle in December). 

Facing large mid-November deficits, neither the Packers nor the Lions look as though they have runs in them. And there's a strong chance the rest of the division spends much of the remainder of the year beating one another up, starting with a Week 12 matchup between Minnesota and Green Bay. 

There's a chance that the still-raw Trubisky, who often transitions from hero to zero and zero to hero on a play-by-play basis, will eventually make a mistake from which the Bears can't recover, especially when the margin for error is minuscule come December or January. It's possible these Bears aren't ready to make a run. 

But at this point, you have to consider Chicago the favorite to win the NFC North and a true contender. You don't have to group the Bears with the 9-1 New Orleans Saints or the 9-1 Los Angeles Rams, But with the Vikings, Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins losing on Sunday, they're the only team in the NFC other than New Orleans and L.A. that has fewer than four losses. 

They just might be the top candidate to spoil a Rams-Saints NFC Championship Game that has often felt inevitable, especially considering that they're faced with only two more games against opponents who currently hold winning records. 

Aside from their lack of experience (which is becoming less of a concern every week), it's hard to find a major problem with this team. 

Nagy has jump-started a long-dormant offense with a fresh, imaginative approach. His roll-out-heavy offense caters to Trubisky's strengths and puts the North Carolina product in favorable positions, especially on third down (where the Bears were 50 percent against Minnesota, giving them a major edge in time of possession). 

Despite some poor decisions, Trubisky entered Sunday as the league's 11th-highest-rated passer, and he continues to make a tremendous difference with his legs. It helps that he has a strong running back duo in Jordan Howard and slippery pass-catcher Tarik Cohen, four top-notch targets in Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Trey Burton and an offensive line that continues to excel thanks to superb play from Charles Leno Jr., Bobby Massie and Cody Whitehair.

And then there's a defense that held the Vikings to just three points in the first three quarters of Sunday night's game. Even after giving up chunks of yardage and points in garbage time against Minnesota, that unit has now surrendered 22 or fewer points in four consecutive victories and has generated 10 takeaways in its last three outings. 

With defensive linemen Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks both putting together All-Pro-caliber seasons, the Chicago defense entered Week 11 ranked No. 1 in Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), and another dominant performance against the Vikes should help.

Hicks had five tackles for loss (per Pro Football Focus), Mack had a sack and a forced fumble, playmaking safety Eddie Jackson had a huge fourth-quarter pick-six (Chicago's league-best 18th interception of the season), and highly touted third-year pass-rusher Leonard Floyd made several impact plays in the victory. 

Maybe you weren't ready to crown the Bears after they put up a fight in Green Bay, crushed the Bucs, hung with the Patriots and hammered the Lions. Your argument then likely would have been that they'd yet to earn a signature victory over a worthy opponent. 

That changed Sunday night, and now it's time for us all to acknowledge that the talented, balanced and energetic Bears are primed to capture their first division title since 2010. 

      

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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