Matt Nagy has his priorities straight when he says a first-round bye is the next goal to pursue.
Odds don’t favor the 10-4 Bears as they prepare for Sunday’s game against the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. The Bears trail the Rams by one game and the Saints by two with two games remaining. The Bears, who have won seven of their last eight games, look most likely to finish as the third seed, which would give them a home playoff game on wild-card weekend Jan. 5-6.
The Rams are scuffling, having lost consecutive regular-season games for the first time in two seasons under coach Sean McVay, but they finish the season at the Cardinals (3-11) on Sunday and then at home against the 49ers (4-10) on Dec. 30. They’re 13½-point favorites against the Cardinals and should be heavily favored against the 49ers. Of course, the Rams were a big chalk play last week when they were sloppy in a home loss to the Eagles.
Until their chances to earn a top-two seed are extinguished, the Bears should do everything in their power to keep the heat on the Rams because recent history doesn’t favor teams playing on wild-card weekend reaching the Super Bowl, let alone winning it.
“We’re in a great situation right now where we could be a lot of different seeds,” Nagy said. “And so the question that comes up of resting starters (for the playoffs), that’s not even in the world of consideration for us. We’re trying to win. There are too many other things that can happen. Realistically speaking, we can be a higher seed. If you have an opportunity to do that, why wouldn’t you try for that?”
In four of the last five years, the Super Bowl has pitted the No. 1 seed from the NFC against the No. 1 seed from the AFC, with the exception two years ago when the Patriots (No. 1 AFC seed) defeated the Falcons (No. 2 NFC seed).
However, in the eight-year span from 2006 through 2013, seven times a team that played on wild-card weekend reached the Super Bowl with five of those teams winning it all — the Ravens (fourth seed 2013), Giants (fourth seed 2012), Packers (sixth seed 2011), Colts (third seed 2007) and Steelers (sixth seed 2006). That’s evidence an extra playoff game doesn’t create insurmountable odds for succeeding in January and playing into February.
Cornerback Prince Amukamara was a rookie for the Giants in 2011 when they won the NFC East with a 9-7 record, won a home playoff game over the Falcons before springing upsets in Green Bay and San Francisco and then stunning the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. That was after the Giants defeated the Jets and Cowboys in the final two weeks of the regular season just to get in.
“We were already in a position where we had to win out, so we already had our backs against the wall to even get in,” Amukamara said. “Once we experienced that, there was really no pressure in the playoffs because we already had that feeling, ‘Hey, it’s win or go home.’”
That doesn’t apply to the Bears, but what the Giants did was get on a roll entering the playoffs and after getting into the playoffs, the next important thing is peaking at that time of year.
“(Nagy) addressed us in the meeting already this week,” Amukamara said. “He said our mindset is just to go 2-0 these next two weeks and don’t worry about anything else and then we’ll see where we are. We’re playing wild-card weekend or we’re not.”
The current format with six playoff teams in each conference was introduced in 1990. In 28 years since, 12 teams that played on wild-card weekend reached the Super Bowl with seven winning it.
The Bears are 7-1 at Soldier Field this season, their best record at home since they were 7-1 in 2005. Nagy has made creating a home-field advantage a top priority, and based on the energized crowds for the last two wins over the Rams and Packers, he has succeeded.
Since 1990, teams playing at home are 71-41 (.634) in the wild-card round, 81-31 (.723) in the divisional round and 37-19 (.661) in the conference championship round. Overall, home teams are 189-91 (.675). Home-field advantage in the playoffs is certainly reflective of the fact that higher-seeded teams are usually better. The edge isn’t as significant in the wild-card round, where a wild-card team with a better record can travel to play a division winner with, say, a 9-7 record.
The Bears have not played a road playoff game since January 1995. They went to the Metrodome and upset the Vikings 35-18 at the end of Dave Wannstedt’s second season as Bears coach. They were dispatched the next week in the divisional round by the 49ers in San Francisco.
They’re guaranteed at least one playoff round at home, and Nagy needs to keep pressing forward with the hope the Rams don’t get their act together Sunday against the Cardinals. If circumstances change before the season finale Dec. 30 in Minnesota, maybe the Bears change course, but if they take care of business against the 49ers, they’ll remain within striking distance of at least the No. 2 seed regardless of what the Rams do this week.
“Unless you’re locked in and you can’t move, then you have to decide” how to handle a game, Nagy said. “Right now, we have to win.”