Expert NFL Handicapping: Are Chicago Bears a Legit Contender?
The Chicago Bears are such an interesting case right now. After so many years of futility, and with muted expectations this year, they find themselves very much in control of the NFC North. They haven't wrapped anything up, and losing to the Giants was certainly not helpful to their cause, but they are nearly-prohibitive -800 favorites to win the division at Bovada , with the Vikings far back at +375. It's quite a turnaround - and certainly not how anyone expected the division to go at the start of the year.
But, how has it happened? And can we reasonably expect it to keep happening? Here are some factors to consider as we ponder those questions:
Schedule: With four games left, it won't take much for the Bears to wrap up the division. Two of their remaining games are against the Packers and the 49ers, so those should be nearly certain wins at this point - though I would have said the same thing about the Giants last week, and they lost that one somehow. Assuming they win those two games, they would have 10 wins. That would force the Vikings to run the table to finish on top of the division, and the way they are playing right now that just isn't happening. And the Bears control their own destiny as well, as their last game is at those Vikings. If they win that one, it would be very tough for Minnesota to come out on top. It sets up very well for Chicago - which is why the futures prices are where they are.
It's the next game, though, that is perhaps the most interesting. They host the Rams. L.A. has been a brilliant team, but they have shown faint hints of vulnerability the last couple of weeks. And if the Bears are at their best defensively, they could make this interesting. It was probably easier to believe that that would happen before the team lost to Eli Manning, but the Bears are only a three-point underdog, and it will be an excellent test of where the team is really at.
Matt Nagy: Nagy, the 40-year-old former Arena League quarterback, has made quite a name for himself already in his first year of coaching. After a long string of uninspiring coaching hires, the energy and creativity of Nagy - the modern approach, really - is so refreshing. He was a 10-year disciple of Andy Reid, working his way up from intern in Philadelphia to offensive coordinator in Kansas City, and that influence is very evident in how Nagy is leading this team. Like Reid, Nagy runs a tight ship that his players have obviously bought into, and self-belief is not at all in short supply around the team. After the last few Lovie Smith years, the unfortunate Marc Trestman era, and all that time John Fox just stole money and did nothing in return, the difference in, well, coaching competence, is incredibly clear.
Khalil Mack: The team paid an absolute king's ransom to acquire Mack from the Raiders at the start of the season. And if you asked anyone around the team, I am sure they would tell you the same thing - that if they had to do it all over again, they would in a heartbeat. Mack has been outstanding, bringing in a swagger that the team was lacking. And he is the anchor of a defense that is allowing just 20 points per game. With the league the way it is right now, you are going to win a lot of games doing that. And those two weak opponents coming up are barely averaging more than that - and don't face defenses like this one. Mack, alongside Nagy, is the biggest reason this team is where it is.
Mitch Trubisky: The quarterback has missed the last two games - including the debacle that was the loss to the Giants. In just 10 games, though, he has already eclipsed his numbers from last year - his touchdowns, for example, went from seven to 20. He's not yet an elite QB, but he is very dramatically better than last year - and well beyond just serviceable at this point. Some of that is just due to his sophomore status and having that much more experience. But Nagy gets a whole lot of credit, too. Nagy was a QB, and he was hired here as much because of Trubisky as anything. He groomed Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, and he has gotten a good share of the credit for his phenomenal success in his first year of starting - Nagy obviously had him ready. And the coach's influence is clear on Trubisky as well. I was fairly high on Trubisky coming out of college, and I am much higher on him now going forward. He could be back against the Rams, but whenever he returns it will be a boost for the team down the stretch.
Betting performance: The Bears are an 8-4 team that is 8-4 ATS. And it almost is as predictable as it seems. Three of the four games they haven't covered the spread in have been their losses. They were favored against the Giants, so that obviously wasn't a cover, but they had won and covered five straight before that. They have only been an underdog twice and have gone 1-1 ATS in those games. They will likely be strongly favored in the two big games down the stretch, and that's a good thing - they are 3-1 ATS in games in which they have been favored by at least a touchdown. Despite the strong defense, the "over" has actually been the best bet this year - they have gone over in eight of 12 games, including four of the last five.
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