The NFC North was 0-3 heading into last night's contest between the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions gave the Bears early Christmas gifts, handing them the NFC North on a platter. All Chicago had to do was beat an Eagles team that gave up 48 points to the lowly Minnesota Vikings last week.
Everything was set up for the Bears to clinch the division, which would have made next week's contest against the Packers meaningless.
Instead, the Bears laid a massive egg, one so large that even the Easter Bunny would step back and say "whoa!" All three phases of the team were horrible and it appeared no one showed up mentally for a contest that could have propelled the team into the playoffs.
As a result, Chicago lost in embarrassing fashion 54-11, falling to 8-7 on the season, and will face Green Bay next week with the division crown, and a trip to the playoffs, on the line.
"We were terrible in all three phases," coach Marc Trestman said after the game. "We didn't play well in any phase of football. We are not happy about it. We are extremely disappointed. We will throw this tape in the trashcan.
"We knew what was at stake tonight and the opportunity that we had and we didn't get it done."
The 54 points allowed were the second most in franchise history, behind only the 55 the Detroit Lions posted in 1997. The 43-point losing margin is the fourth worst defeat for the Bears since 1940.
To start the game, the Bears won the coin toss and elected to receive. It was a departure from what they've done all season, which has been to defer and take the ball to open the second half. The thinking there, presumably, was to put the offense on the field and get quick a lead against Philadelphia's 30th-ranked defense.
Instead, the Bears went 3-and-out, which was followed by a lame-duck punt from Adam Podlesh, which flew out of bounds just 25 yards down the field. Seven plays later, Philly was up 7-0.
On the ensuing kickoff, Devin Hester fumbled the ball, giving the Eagles possession at the Bears' 39-yard line. Five plays later, Philadelphia was up 14-0.
After another three-and-out by the offense, the Eagles put together a 10-play drive scoring drive that put them ahead 21-0. At that point, there was 1:33 left in the first quarter and the game was essentially over.
"We should have started faster. We needed to start faster," said Jay Cutler. "We were down 14-0 pretty quickly and then soon 21-0. It's hard to get in a rhythm."
No matter if the Eagles won or lost, their chances of making the playoffs rest entirely on next week's contest against the Dallas Cowboys. Other than potentially moving up one seed spot in the NFC playoffs, the Eagles had nothing to play for, while the Bears had everything on the line. Yet Philadelphia was the team that came out like gangbusters, dismantling the Bears in every phase of the game for the first 15 minutes.
"It was tough, there is no doubt about it, because the game was moving fast on their side of the ball," Trestman said. "So we were a little more aggressive, I think you could see that. We took some shots. We had some shots early and really when we were down 21-0, we just couldn't get it done."
Run Game Stalled
The Bears came into the game with the 13th ranked rushing attack, while the Eagles were giving up 110 yards on the ground per game. RB Matt Forte was coming off three straight 100-yard outings. The plan was to use to the run to open up the passing game, but that never materialized due to very poor blocking up front.
The inability to establish the run led to the first two three-and-outs, which was all Philly needed to build an insurmountable lead.
"We lost the line of scrimmage [battle] on both sides of the football," said Trestman. "We didn't run the ball well, we couldn't even get a run started tonight when we started the game."
During those first two series, Forte carried the ball three times for 8 yards, setting up 3rd downs the offense could not convert. For the game, Forte rushed nine times for just 29 yards, which is a season low for a running back that came into the game third in the NFL in rushing.
"We really got out of the rhythm of running the football and mixing the run and giving Matt a chance," Trestman said. "It didn't start out very well because we were taking hits and he was sliding off some hits and he had some second effort to push his way into some positive yards, but it wasn't clean the way it has been in the weeks past."
For their part, the offensive line took responsibility for the struggles in the run game.
"This game does not taste good. We had no momentum in the game," said Jermon Bushrod. "We got down 21 points and we needed to score and we did not do that. You have to come back and score on a team when they mount the lead. The Eagles did and we did not do that. It is frustrating because we scored a lot of points this year in games but not tonight."
The Bears are one of the best pass blocking teams in the league and were ranked third in the league in sacks allowed coming into last night's game. Yet you wouldn't have know that based on the way the Eagles consistently applied pressure on nearly every pass play.
Chicago allowed five sacks, resulting in 46 yards lost, which is the most sacks they've given up in a single game all season. Much of that pressure came on the blitz, with the Eagles using a number of creative packages out of their base 3-4 system.
"We just had too many breakdowns tonight and this is not characteristic of the way we play," Bushrod said. "We do not preach this and practice this and we want to protect our quarterback. When you get down in a game like this and it gets lopsided, they throw a bunch at you and can afford to do so. We have to play better on the line."
But again, the protection issues stemmed from the team's inability to run the ball. After three straight failed drives to start the game, the Bears took possession of the ball, down 21-0, with more than 10 minutes to play in the second quarter. Trestman then called 12 straight pass plays on a drive that was stalled by two straight sacks in Eagles territory.
At that point, the rout was on.
"It's hard to get in a rhythm because it's pass, pass, pass," said Cutler. "We're putting our offensive line in a bad position, a lot of one-on-one blocks. They did a good job of taking away the outside lanes and then kind of blitzing our back. We were trying to keep [Forte] in. They had a good plan. We have to give them a hand. They beat us pretty thoroughly offensively."
Matt Forte is usually one of the better blocking running backs in the NFL. Throughout the season, he's proven extremely adept at picking up extra pressure, particularly from the blitz. Against the Eagles, it was as if he forgot how to execute in protection.
Much of the pressure on Cutler, as well as a couple of sacks, fall squarely on the shoulders of Forte, who could not keep Philly defenders out of the backfield. And the problem wasn't awareness, as he was consistently in the right spot to make a block. It was his effort that was nonexistent.
A perfect example came during the third play of the game, on the first of Trent Cole's three sacks. Forte swung across the formation to pick up Cole and was in a good position to block the blitzer, yet he gave a half-hearted attempt that Cole shrug off before taking Cutler down.
Forte has shown he's much better than this and will have step up his game, with much better effort, next week against the Packers.
No Third Option
As we pointed out in our game preview, the Eagles used a three-tiered system to disrupt Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Defenders shucked the receivers at the line of scrimmage, with safeties rolling over the top. In essence, the Eagles double teamed Chicago's two best pass catchers on every play, daring someone else to beat them.
And no one did.
TE Martellus Bennett had a decent game (five catches for 85 yards) but it was far too little. And Forte, who was third in the league in all-purpose yards coming into the contest, was forced to stay in and block due to Philadelphia's relentless pressure, resulting in just four catches for 25 yards.
Going forward, you wonder if Green Bay, or any of the team's future opponents, will use this game as a blueprint to counter Chicago's big two wideouts, as well as Forte.
Tired of Talking About it
Chicago's defense is bad against the run, but you knew that already. Yet there was hope that the return of Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs would provide a spark to a unit in desperate need of a boost. If you ask the players, Briggs did just that.
"It was good having him back," Julius Peppers said. "It was good having him on the field. The final score might not show it but it was a big boost having him out there."
Briggs played 59 of 63 snaps – which was more than most expected considering his two-month layoff – but his impact was minimal.
LeSean McCoy rushed for 133 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries (7.4 avg.) and Bryce Brown picked up 115 rushing yards on 9 carries (12.8 avg.), including a 65-yard TD run when the Eagles were just trying to run out the clock. Even third stringer Chris Polk got in on the action with a 10-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
The Bears have not allowed two 100-yard rushers in the same game since the Broncos' Otis Armstrong and Norris Weese on Dec. 12, 1976. The Eagles' 289 rushing yards were the most allowed by Chicago's defense all year.
The 514 total yards allowed to the Eagles were a season high for the Bears. They have now allowed 5,840 yards this season, which is a franchise record, surpassing the 5,729 given up in 1989.
In addition, the Bears are on track to finish the year ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing defense for the first time in the 94-year history of the franchise.
And they play the Packers for the NFC North title next week. Go figure.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.