The Chicago Bears observed what the Rams achieved in 2017, and they appear to be following the Rams’ formula for success.
In 2016, the Rams selected quarterback Jared Goff with the first pick in the draft. But after the team continued to struggle under a veteran head coach and unimaginative offensive staff, they hired the offense-minded, 30-year-old Sean McVay, the youngest coach in modern NFL history, and then watched the franchise turn around with help from another outstanding season from defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the NFL defensive player of the year.
In 2017, the Bears selected quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the second pick in the draft. But after the team continued to struggle under a veteran head coach and unimaginative offensive staff, they hired offense-minded Matt Nagy, who at 39 became the third-youngest coach in the league, and have watched the team turn around after a trade for linebacker Khalil Mack, the 2016 NFL defensive player of the year.
The Bears still lack many of the Rams’ pieces — a star running back the caliber of Todd Gurley, for one — but are regarded as a threat when the Rams travel to Soldier Field to play the Bears on Sunday night.
The Rams are 11-1, already have clinched the NFC West and are competing with the 10-2 New Orleans Saints for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. A victory over the Bears would ensure a bye in the wild-card round.
“To be able to earn the opportunity in your 13th game of the season to, at the worst, clinch a No. 2 seed … is a huge deal to us,” McVay said after the Rams clinched a second consecutive division title with a Week 12 victory over the Detroit Lions.
The Bears are atop the NFC North with an 8-4 record, despite a Week 12 overtime defeat to the New York Giants.
After the Rams’ win at Detroit, McVay looked ahead to Sunday’s game and said that Nagy has “been excellent as far as leading that team, and you look at how tough they are in all three phases.”
Trubisky’s status for Sunday’s game is still to be determined after sitting out the last two games because of a right shoulder injury.
Trubisky has completed 65% of his passes, 20 for touchdowns, with nine interceptions. He was injured when he was hit while running with the ball Nov. 18 against the Minnesota Vikings. Chase Daniel led the Bears to a Thanksgiving Day victory over the Lions, but he had two passes intercepted and fumbled four times against the Giants.
The Bears rank 20th in total offense, averaging 351.6 yards a game, but are fifth in scoring, averaging 28.7 points.
Mack, traded from the Oakland Raiders to the Bears, agreed to a record $141-million contract a day after Donald signed a $135-million extension with the Rams.
Mack has nine sacks for a defense that ranks fourth, giving up 317.9 yards a game, and fourth in scoring defense (20.1).
The forecast for Sunday night calls for temperatures in the 20s.
Rams offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth has not played at Soldier Field, but he did spend 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. So he knows cold weather.
“I played a lot of cold football games in December, so a lot of Pittsburgh end-of-the-year games and all that good mess,” he said, adding about Chicago, “It’s a great electric atmosphere up there playing in the cold weather and at night and all those things.
“It will be a great atmosphere.”
With Malcolm Brown, the Rams’ backup running back and special teams standout, sidelined indefinitely because of what McVay described as clavicle injury, running backs Justin Davis and John Kelly are competing for opportunities to play.
Davis, a second-year pro, signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent after playing at USC.
He fumbled twice in a 2017 preseason game against the Cowboys but impressed coaches with the way he bounced back and showed improvement through the offseason. He rushed for 41 yards in seven carries in the preseason opener at Baltimore but suffered an ankle injury that prevented him from playing in the remaining three preseason games.
Davis has played on special teams in eight games this season.
Kelly, a rookie, played in college at Tennessee and was selected in the sixth round of the draft.
With McVay holding out Gurley during the preseason, and Davis sidelined because of injury, Kelly carried the load during preseason games, rushing for 197 yards and three touchdowns in 46 carries.