(670 The Score) Two days after the Bears bottomed out with a stunning loss to the Lions on Dec. 6, coach Matt Nagy handed out black index cards to his players. They carried a simple message.
Sunday, January 3rd, 2021, 7:00 pm.
It represented the time when Nagy expected the Bears to learn their opponent for the playoffs. Though Chicago had fallen to 5-7 with a 34-30 loss to Detroit by blowing a 10-point lead in the final minutes, Nagy believed the Bears would still reach the postseason. He wanted them to feel that too.
Sure enough, Nagy and his Bears (8-8) learned right around that time they would travel to face the Saints (12-4) in New Orleans this Sunday on wild-card weekend. When Nagy handed out the index cards, he did so believing three wins in the final four games would be enough to get in. The Bears backed into the playoff field, losing 35-16 to the Packers at Soldier Field on Sunday but landing the No. 7 seed in the NFC by virtue of the Rams' 18-7 win against the Cardinals.
"Anything can happen when you get in the playoffs," Nagy reminded his team after its loss Sunday. "Anything."
The Bears face steep odds of making a postseason run -- or even pulling the upset in New Orleans. They hold 85-1 odds to win the Super Bowl (+8500) and are 9.5-point underdogs against the Saints, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
But Nagy will have the Bears believing they can beat anybody, just as they felt the playoffs were always possible.
There's a path to victory against the Saints -- and of course the road to defeat that most expect. Let's break them down.
Path to a win
Though the Bears are heavy underdogs, earning a win against the Saints isn't as complicated as it may seem.
To do so, the Bears need to control the game by playing the type of complementary football that got them into the postseason. That means operating an offense with run-pass balance that gives 20 or more carries to running back David Montgomery and plays to the strengths of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. It also means sustaining long drives, not settling for field goals and winning the turnover battle.
Or put another way, the Bears will have to win ugly. They would need to control the clock enough to make it a lower-scoring game.
Trubisky must be efficient with his play, protect the football and avoid the critical mistake that can swing a game. The Bears have little margin for error.
On defense, the Bears must step up after struggling late in the season. When the Saints edged the Bears in a 26-23 overtime win at Soldier Field on Nov. 1, future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees dinked and dunked all over the Chicago defense. He was 31-of-41 for 280 yards and two touchdowns in an efficient-but-unimpressive performance. Chicago held New Orleans star running back Alvin Kamara to 12 carries and 67 yards on the ground, but he did have nine catches for 96 yards.
Kamara's availability is a key storyline to follow, as it's unclear if he'll play after recently testing positive for COVID-19. He has to be asymptomatic and clear the COVID-19 protocols by Sunday to take the field.
The Nov. 1 matchup between the teams was the type of game that could bring the Bears a victory on Sunday. But the difference in that New Orleans win was that Chicago didn't force a turnover. If the Bears can come up with a game-changing turnover and play a similar game, they could leave the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- which won't be its usual raucous environment amid the pandemic -- with a victory.
Path to a loss
Controlling a game against the Saints is no easy task. If Kamara is available, New Orleans has an explosive star ready to break a big play on any given snap and a stifling defense that ranks fifth in opponents' scoring and fourth in opponents' yardage.
The Saints are the only team in this playoff field ranking in the top five in scoring offense and scoring defense, reminding of how complete a team they are. With that in mind, there are more paths to the Bears losing this game than winning it.
If the Saints have their way, they'll unleash Kamara against a Bears defense that has featured holes recently. He'll be the best player on the field if healthy, and the Saints offense will be dangerous. The Bears also could be without star linebacker Roquan Smith, who suffered an elbow injury Sunday. The Packers exploited the Bears' defense after Smith left the game.
Brees isn't the Brees of old, but he can find success by relying on playmakers like Kamara and star receiver Michael Thomas as well as the consistently creative play-calling of coach Sean Payton.
On defense, the Saints force opponents into mistakes. They were tied for third in the NFL with 26 takeaways, including 18 interceptions. New Orleans was also tied for fourth in the league in pressures, generating heat on 25.6% of its defensive snaps. The Saints collected 45 sacks on the season.
That spells trouble for the Bears' reshaped offensive line, which hasn't faced a defense like this since moving Sam Mustipher to center, sliding Cody Whitehair to left guard and starting Alex Bars at right guard. Communication will be key to keeping the pocket clean. Meanwhile, Trubisky must make the right decisions.
If the Saints are attacking on both sides of the football, the Bears will get run out of the dome.
It will take nearly perfect execution for the Bears just to have a chance against the Saints on Sunday, but they believe an upset can happen.
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.