By BOB LeGERE
Bears coach Matt Nagy left no doubt how he felt about using the “p” word at the halfway point, even though his team is 5-3 and in first place in the NFC North.
“Never,” Nagy said when asked about his philosophy of using the possibility of playoffs as motivation. “You’ll never hear that from me. You’ll never hear the word ‘playoffs’ from me.”
Why so adamant?
“Because we’re worried about [Game] 9,” Nagy said. “That’s it. [If] we worry about playoffs, then we’re worrying about the wrong thing. We have a lot of season left.”
Six teams started 5-3 last year, and all six finished at least 9-7. Of those 5-3 teams that finished 9-7, the Bills and Titans made the playoffs, while the Cowboys and Seahawks did not.
So, Nagy might not say “playoffs,” and he might not want his players to say it, but it’s impossible for them not to think about it. They admit that, but they’re also quick to point out that Job 1 is defeating the 3-5 Lions on Sunday at Soldier Field, hoping to reverse a trend that has seen Detroit win nine of the past 10 meetings.
“You try not to [think about it],” rookie inside linebacker Roquan Smith said about the postseason. “You more so just focus on the next game because the next game is the most critical game, so therefore it’s Detroit. It’s a division game, and also it’s the next game, so we need to continue going in the right direction.”
In defensive end Akiem Hicks’ first two seasons with the Bears, they started 2-6 and 3-5 in 2016 and ’17, respectively. The Bears haven’t started 5-3 since 2013, Marc Trestman’s first season, but they finished 8-8.
A year earlier, Lovie Smith’s last Bears team started 6-2 but lost five of its next six and finished 10-6, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. The last Bears team to start 5-3 and get to the postseason was Smith’s 2011 team, which went 11-5 and lost to the Packers in the NFC title game.
“I’ve got to say, it’s your ultimate goal, right?” Hicks said of the postseason. “Your ultimate goal is to be playing late into January and hopefully early February. But you’ve got to remain focused on what’s at hand, and that’s beating the Detroit Lions.”
As with Hicks, center Cody Whitehair hasn’t experienced much success in his two years with the Bears, when they were a combined 8-24, so this is the first time the playoffs have been a realistic goal this late in the season. That early success has created a different feeling in the locker room and on the field.
“When you’re winning, that builds confidence,” Whitehair said. “But you can’t get caught up in all of it. We have it take it week by week and get ready for Detroit. You’ve just got to stay focused on what’s important in the moment, and that’s just beating Detroit. Obviously [the playoffs are] our goal, [but] we’ve got three really tough games ahead of us with division opponents. We just have to stay in the moment.”
A week from Sunday, the Bears host the 5-3-1 Vikings in a game that’s been flexed from noon to night, an indication of its significance. Four days later, on Thanksgiving Day, comes the rematch with the Lions in Detroit.
Spirit of giving
The Bears’ 30th annual Coat Drive kicked off Tuesday with the goal of collecting 25,000 new and gently used coats for those in need.
Donations can be made at 187 participating Jewel-Osco stores through Feb. 1, and all coats will benefit The Salvation Army. Information on how to receive a coat is available by calling The Salvation Army at 773-725-1100. Last year, 21,000 coats were donated.