CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- The Bears were in need of a game-changing play from their defense as they trailed the Packers by five points late in the third quarter Sunday.
Aaron Rodgers, the Packers' future Hall of Fame quarterback, threw a pass that went through the grasp of Bears safety Eddie Jackson. One play later, pass rusher Barkevious Mingo couldn't haul in a sure interception. Those were two of three would-be picks the Bears dropped in the 35-16 loss at Soldier Field.
Those were also the decisive plays that the Bears used to make so often. They aren't happening anymore. A defense that was dominant at times early this season has become just average. Once the great strength of this Bears team, the defense has endured a clear decline that leaves great concern -- not just against the Saints in a wild-card game this Sunday but also beyond that.
"I just have a lot of trust in our guys," Bears coach Matt Nagy said. "And now, it’s their job when they get an opportunity to make a play, they got to make plays. That’s really what it comes down to."
When the Bears entered the playoffs two years ago believing they were a legitimate Super Bowl contender, they did so on the back of a defense that ranked first in opponents' scoring and first in takeaways in the NFL. In 2020, the Bears were 14th in opponents' scoring and 25th in takeaways.
Jackson and cornerback Kyle Fuller combined for 13 interceptions in 2018. They combined for just one this season, with that coming from Fuller. The Bears recorded 35 sacks this season after having 50 in 2018. That total of 35 included only two from veteran edge rusher Robert Quinn, who signed a five-year, $70-million deal last offseason.
"I'm still shocked," Quinn said last week. "I still can't believe I had a season like I had this year.
"Me personally, it's been a frustrating year."
On Sunday, the Bears once again struggled to stop Rodgers and the Packers. He was an efficient 19-of-24 for 240 yards, four touchdowns and a 147.9 passer rating. Green Bay averaged 7.2 yards per play and didn't have a turnover on offense (a muffed punt return marked the Packers' lone giveaway).
The Packers and their top-ranked scoring offense once again dictated a game against the Bears defense, leaving Chicago's playoff fate to be decided out in Los Angeles. That's where the Rams earned an 18-7 win against the Cardinals, which allowed Chicago to back into the postseason field by virtue of owning a tiebreaker with Arizona for having a better record against common opponents.
"Everything before that doesn’t matter," Jackson said. "We are in there. We got to play our best ball there, without a doubt."
The Bears' defensive decline will leave them with key decisions to make this offseason. It starts with whether to retain defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and what to do with a few players with key contracts. Of course, those are items to handle later. Chicago still has an opportunity in this postseason.
The Bears will first be tasked with slowing down a Saints offense that ranked fifth in the NFL in averaging 30.1 points per game. The Saints also feature star running back Alvin Kamara, who tied an NFL record with six touchdowns in his last game Christmas Day. Kamara's status is still up in the air after he tested positive for COVID-19, though he will be eligible to play Sunday if he's asymptomatic and passes a cardiac screening.
Should the Bears pull off a stunning upset against the Saints, they would earn a rematch with the Packers and their potent offense in a divisional round matchup at Lambeau Field.
If the Bears are to make any kind of playoff run, they really need a defense that now ranks as just average to rise up and become dominant again.
"I believe in our guys," Nagy said. "I really do.
"It’s our time to step up in all areas.”
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.