In the game program for Sunday’s wild-card playoff at Soldier Field, under the heading “On This Day in Bears History,” it was noted, apparently without intended irony, that on Jan. 6, 1878, Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Ill.
The connection between the poet and the football team seems tenuous and was not amplified upon in the program, but it isn’t uncommon at this time of year for NFL postseason teams to assume a greater association with achievement than is warranted.
That proved to be the case for the Bears, who enjoyed a 12-4 season on the strength of a very good defense and a serviceable offense, earned an opening-round home game, and were very sure, regardless of the opponent, that their postseason would continue.
The team’s long history of unfulfilled potential should have been a cautionary tale for both the organization and its fans. The Bears, since their run to a Super Bowl loss following the 2006 season, had won a single playoff game, and that in the 2010 season. Employing their fourth head coach in that short stretch, a little humility might have been in order as this season’s postseason began, but the Eagles were considered more of a tune-up than a test.
That became obvious when coach Matt Nagy opted to play his starters in what would prove a meaningless regular-season finale against Minnesota, which became an easy win over the Vikings and, in turn, allowed the Eagles to slip into the final NFC playoff spot.
Had Nagy rested his best players in Minneapolis and turned down the quality control as coaches do in that circumstance, the Bears would have opened on Sunday in Soldier Field against the same Vikings, a team they know well and can handle. But that’s apparently also how the Eagles were viewed.
Nagy had the slim excuse that the Bears could claim a first-round bye if the Rams lost to the 49ers at the same time, but when Los Angeles went out to a 21-point first-half lead, Nagy stuck to his plan, and left his best players at risk. Because, of course, what did it matter?
It seemed to matter on Sunday when the Eagles beat the Bears, 16-15, despite playing a pretty spotty game, particularly in the first half. Nick Foles threw two interceptions, and both of Chicago’s scores – mere field goals – were aided either by Eagles’ penalties or a dropped interception, or both.
Had the Bears been more opportunistic, or just a better team, they could have taken control in the first half and made a case for their greatness. It turned out, however, that this day in Bears history would end like a lot of the others.
Underestimating the Eagles this season is logical, given everything, but it isn’t the way to go, something Nagy will add to the lessons already learned as a rookie head coach. Once again, the Eagles are trying to work through the postseason with a backup quarterback and, this time, without a bell-cow running back, and with a patched-together defense.
Just to illustrate the situation, the Eagles lost to injury four of the five defensive backs from their starting nickel package, which is their true base defense. A total of 14 defensive backs have taken snaps this season. One of their regular contributors now, Tre Sullivan, is a 2017 undrafted free agent who spent four weeks on the practice squad this season, had taken only eight snaps entering the ninth game, and still finished the regular season having taken 21 percent of the team’s defensive snaps for the year. That sort of thing only happens out of dire necessity.
In addition, the Eagles are trying to construct a repeat of their Super Bowl appearance needing three road wins, which is hard for any team, let alone one with its issues. Since a loss to the Cowboys left them 6-7 on the season, they have won four straight, with every game an elimination game.
It was no wonder the Bears preferred to play them, although perhaps there are people wondering about that today in Chicago.
Down in New Orleans, where the Eagles will play the divisional round in the Superdome on Sunday, the Saints can similarly be forgiven for approving of the matchup. The Eagles lost, 48-7, there in November, a rump-roasting as thorough as one is likely to see.
The Saints are the top seed in the conference and, unlike the Bears, had no choice in their opponent. They, no doubt, will say the right things about respecting the defending Super Bowl champions and Foles, the team’s unlikely savior. What the Saints believe deep down upon one more viewing of the previous game film is another matter.
Sunday might turn out to be a repeat of what happened before, but these Eagles defy assumptions, and challenge opponents to prove their greatness rather than just declare it. The game could go as easily as expected in the “Big Easy,” but taking a long glance at Sandburg’s “City of the Big Shoulders,” left looking Sunday for one to cry upon, is a good recommendation.