(670 The Score) Not long after the Bears hired Ryan Pace as their general manager six years ago to the date Friday, team president Ted Phillips' phone rang.
On the other line was Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, the lead football executive in New Orleans since 2002 and architect of the franchise's success.
“You son of a gun, I can’t believe you took my guy,” Loomis told Phillips.
Pace was hired by the Saints in 2001 after paying $50 for a job fair in New Orleans and having his application picked out of hundreds. He started in the role of operations assistant and ultimately became the right-hand man of Loomis before being hired by the Bears.
Pace blew away chairman George McCaskey, Phillips and the Bears' board of executives with a clear plan to build in Chicago what had already been constructed in New Orleans. Now six years into his Bears tenure, Pace has failed to bring his team up to the Saints' standard.
The chief mistake, of course, was Pace's selection of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Pace thought of Saints quarterback Drew Brees as he scouted and selected Trubisky. He then attempted to surround Trubisky with offensive playmakers, including using a 2017 second-round pick on Adam Shaheen, a tight end from Division-II Ashland University.
Primarily, Pace hoped to create the quarterback-coach dynamic in Chicago that Brees and Saints coach Sean Payton have shared since arriving in New Orleans in 2006. Because the cast of skill players can change -- from Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham to Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas -- but the right quarterback and coach can create lasting success.
Instead, the disconnect between Trubisky and Bears coach Matt Nagy has become clear over their three years together. On Wednesday, Trubisky explained part of why he admires Brees.
"Watching his career path, you're never out of this," Trubisky said. "So, he goes from one team to another, a lot of people counted him out and then he goes on to be a Hall of Fame quarterback and have a lot of success in this league."
A fresh start could certainly bode well for Trubisky, who's set to be one of the top quarterbacks available in free agency in March. But where does that leave Pace?
As the Bears (8-8) visit the heavily favored Saints (12-4) on Sunday, the separation between the two franchises is plenty apparent. Chicago has gone 42-54 in six years under Pace, with just one winning season. New Orleans is 63-33 over the past six years and has won four straight NFC South crowns.
McCaskey has yet to reveal whether Pace will be retained by the Bears for 2021, as he's likely waiting until the conclusion of Chicago's season before holding such an evaluation. When he does, McCaskey must decide whether he views this season as a success after the Bears posted a second straight 8-8 campaign and snuck into the playoffs by earning the final spot in an expanded field.
Sunday in New Orleans should be a litmus test to gauge where the Bears stand against the organization they once aspired to be -- and perhaps whether Pace is still the right leader.
Open field: A playoff opportunity has arrived
The Bears aren't going to sugarcoat being in this position. They wanted nothing more than to earn a playoff berth by controlling their own destiny and beating the rival Packers last Sunday.
Instead, it was the Rams' 18-7 victory against the Cardinals that allowed the Bears to back their way into the playoffs as the NFC's first ever No. 7 seed. So the Bears aren't going to pretend what they accomplished was some great feat.
"It's like a bittersweet type of thing," star pass rusher Khalil Mack said. "Obviously, our goal wasn't to go 8-8. Obviously, our goal wasn't to lose (last Sunday) and do this and rely on another team to get to where we want to be. But we are in a position to do some things now."
Top receiver Allen Robinson had a similar refrain.
"I know it wasn’t a 12-4 season like we had a couple of years ago," Robinson said. "I know last year we went 8-8 and didn’t get to the playoffs. But we went 8-8 again this year and we got to the playoffs. We gave ourselves a shot.
"We’re a wild card, but we’re still alive and we’re still giving ourselves a shot to compete for that trophy."
Mack referred to the game as an "opportunity to redeem." The Bears won't call this a successful season, but they also hope to redefine how it's viewed. There's no better way to start doing that than to beat a complete Saints team.
If the Bears upset the Saints, they would take confidence and a feeling of legitimacy into yet another matchup against the rival Packers, the NFC's top seed. The conversation would be centered on the championship window being open instead of wondering what's next. The six-game losing streak from earlier in the season would be forgotten.
Playoff opportunities shouldn't be taken for granted in Chicago, because they've been rare in this city. The Bears have a chance, and they're embracing it.
1.) Downfall of the defense?
A few months after Chuck Pagano was hired as the Bears' defensive coordinator in 2019, he made a notable comparison.
Pagano explained that he saw some of Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed in the Bears' Eddie Jackson.
"From a talent standpoint very, very similar," Pagano said that May. "Great instincts. Great range. Great ball skills. (Jackson) is only three years into it. Ed has a lot more time on task, obviously. He’s got a lot of the same traits. He loves football. He’s a football junkie. The sky’s the limit for a guy like that."
Since those comments, Jackson has just two interceptions in 32 games in Pagano's defensive system. Both of those picks came on desperation heaves on the last play of games in 2019 -- one from Lions reserve quarterback David Blough and one from Vikings reserve quarterback Sean Mannion.
Jackson had zero interceptions in 16 games this season. Granted, he had a pick-six brought back due to a questionable call in the Bears' win against the Giants on Sept. 20, and he just missed several others, including a ball through his reach against the Packers last Sunday.
But Jackson's drop in production parallels the downfall of the Bears' defense. Neither has been the same since 2018, when Jackson had six interceptions in an All-Pro season and the Bears led the NFL in takeaways.
The Bears have struggled to create chances for Jackson and the rest of their secondary, registering quarterback hurries on just 8.5% of opponents' dropbacks this season. Two years ago under the watch of then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Bears hurried the quarterback on 13.5% of dropbacks.
The Bears have a combined 37 takeaways in Pagano's two seasons leading the defense -- only one more than their 36 in 2018.
2.) Playoff A-Rob
Just once in his seven-year career has Bears top receiver Allen Robinson taken the field for a playoff game.
That was on Jan. 6, 2019, when the Bears hosted the Eagles at Soldier Field on wild-card weekend. Robinson produced a breakthrough performance while coming off a regular season in which he was getting reacclimated from a torn ACL.
Robinson hauled in 10 receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown in the Bears' narrow loss to the Eagles. Now, he's thrilled to get another chance on the big stage Sunday.
"That’s what you play for," Robinson said. "Again, another shot at the playoffs means that you got another shot to obtain your goal at the beginning of the year."
The Bears will be counting heavily on Robinson this Sunday, hoping he can find openings against Saints star cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Robinson was held to just two receptions for 37 yards in the Bears' loss to the Packers last Sunday, and Chicago's offense struggled as Robinson was taken out of the game plan by Green Bay.
Rookie receiver Darnell Mooney took advantage of the Packers paying so much attention to Robinson, hauling in a career-best 11 catches for 93 yards before leaving with an ankle injury.
Mooney's status for this Sunday is uncertain, but with or without him, the Bears need Robinson to step up against the Saints.
3.) A wild card
After the Bears fell to 5-7 in early December, Nagy handed out index cards to his players that contained a simple message: January 3rd, 2021, 7:00 p.m.
Nagy wanted the Bears to believe that was when they would learn their playoff fate. His vision came to fruition, with Chicago securing the No. 7 seed despite a loss that day in its regular-season finale. So will Nagy now play the underdog card with his Bears as they face the second-seeded Saints?
He doesn't plan to go that route, saying he doesn't care how outsiders and Las Vegas oddsmakers feel about the Bears.
"I really believe that it comes down to one thing: belief in each other," Nagy said. "When you believe in each other, whether that's the coaches in the players or vice versa, great things can happen in those three hours.
"I just totally believe in our team."
4.) Any bite?
In the Bears' loss to the Saints on Nov. 1, Chicago receivers coach Mike Furrey warned his players about the antagonizing nature of New Orleans cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
Not long after Furrey's warning, Bears receiver Javon Wims threw two punches in an altercation with Gardner-Johnson. Wims was suspended two games, and Furrey later reminded him he was lucky to have been kept on the Bears' roster.
The Bears plan to ignore any potential Gardner-Johnson antics Sunday on a playoff stage.
“We’re just going to play our game," receiver Anthony Miller said. "Guys like that do what they do, but your bark can’t be louder than your bite, and it’s hard to bite."
Quote to note
"We got nothing to lose. We got nothing to lose. We know that everybody is overlooking us."
-- Trubisky on the Bears' playoff hopes
LB Roquan Smith (elbow) -- The Bears have spent the week holding out hope that Smith can return while preparing for the likelihood he can't play.
WR Darnell Mooney (ankle) -- If Mooney plays Sunday, he certainly won't be near 100% health.
WR Allen Robinson (hamstring) -- Robinson has been hobbled by his hamstring issue for the last two weeks, so the Bears have utilized a maintenance plan to limit his workload in practice. He isn't in danger of missing the game.
CB Jaylon Johnson (right shoulder) -- After missing the last three games, Johnson is trending toward playing Sunday. He has been a limited participant in practice this week, which marks an upgrade in his status.
CB Buster Skrine (concussion) -- Here's hoping for the best for Skrine in what seems increasingly like a scary situation after he missed the past four games.
Prediction (11-5): Saints 31, Bears 26
The end of Chicago’s road comes in New Orleans, where the Saints will pull through in a close game -- and send the Bears into an offseason of uncertainty.
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.