The Bears-Saints wild-card game kicks off Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET and can be viewed on CBS, Nickelodeon, Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access.
Sunday afternoon's matchup between the second-seeded New Orleans Saints (12-4) and the seventh-seeded Chicago Bears (8-8) offers a look at teams with contrasting portrayals of cohesion.
The Saints have had their trials and tribulations this year thanks to injuries, with quarterback Drew Brees missing a four-game stretch and star wideout Michael Thomas appearing in just seven games. But Sean Payton's Saints have hardly skipped a beat thanks to a close-knit offensive system years in the making and a well-rounded defense that is blossoming at the right time.
Dealing with adversity is nothing new for Payton and the Saints. Remarkably, the Saints are 8-1 the past two seasons without Brees as the starter, and this year they were able to kick the tires on Payton's passion project -- Taysom Hill. Losing their franchise QB for a stretch the past two years hasn't gotten in the way of the Saints winning their fourth consecutive NFC South title. The Saints also completed their fourth straight 11-plus win season and have won a league-leading 49 regular-season wins in that four-year span.
Winning has become a habit for the Saints and it's a testament to the culture instilled by their coach. Their fortunes are heading in the right direction as Sunday approaches too after favorable luck befell the Saints in the form of scheduling. With their game against the Bears scheduled for Sunday rather than Saturday, star running back Alvin Kamara, who tested positive for COVID-19 last Friday, will be eligible to play pending further test results. Thomas, who was placed on injured reserve ahead of Week 15, could also be back while dynamic return man Deonte Harris and safety Marcus Williams are preparing to play after missing some time.
While the Saints took adversity in stride, the Bears have had a roller-coaster season.
The Bears head into New Orleans as the weekend's biggest underdog. Clinching a first-ever seventh seed came not by a Chicago win, but an Arizona loss in Week 17. Only one of Chicago's eight wins this season came against a playoff team -- a 20-19 victory over Tampa Bay in Week 5. How the Bears found themselves in this scenario is baffling considering the perpetual changes to their season.
It wasn't all that long ago Bears coach Matt Nagy was in a midseason hot seat. The coach opted to make a QB change midway through the third game of the season, benching Mitchell Trubisky for Nick Foles, who was a high-priced acquisition in March. The decision was an immediate success (thanks Atlanta) and the Bears went on to a 5-1 mark, but a six-game losing streak followed. During that span, Nagy relinquished his play-calling duties and Foles would end up injured by Chicago's Week 12 bye. It was the makings of another lost season and perhaps the end of another coaches tenure.
Coupled with the improved health of the Bears offensive line, Trubisky and the Bears found something beginning in Week 13. The Bears offense went on a late-season scoring frenzy, with 30-plus points in four consecutive games and a newfound confidence with Trubisky at the helm. To his credit, Nagy kept the team from bursting at the seams amid a tumultuous year and three straight wins over the Texans, Vikings and Jaguars essentially saved their season. The third-year coach may have even saved his job by making the playoffs.
Lost within the narratives of this matchup is the fact that these two teams did square off in Week 8. The Saints edged the Bears with a field goal in overtime, which began the Bears' midseason losing streak. With Foles as the starter and the Saints defense yet to hit their stride, there isn't much to take away from that game two months ago, other than it being a reminder that both teams have reliable kickers in Wil Lutz and Cairo Santos.
Mitch Trubisky, quarterback, Chicago Bears: The pressure hasn't stopped since Trubisky was traded up for and selected with the No. 2 overall pick in 2017. Constant reminders of who the Bears passed on in order to get him have rendered the Bears QB into strange, sometimes unfair situations. Entering Sunday, however, the pressure on Trubisky will be more than just a figurative storyline going up against a Saints defense that can get after the quarterback (45 sacks) and allow its talented secondary to make plays on the ball (18 interceptions). Cameron Jordan (7.5 sacks) and Trey Hendrickson (13.5) have been a reliable force at the ends of the Saints defensive line and double-teaming one only frees up the other; Hendrickson, however. will miss Sunday's game with a neck injury. Forcing Trubisky to make his first mistake could very well lead to the next one, and New Orleans may do everything in their power to prompt a downward spiral. Trubisky may be out of Chicago with another bad performance, and less we forget there's another factor going into Sunday: another Foles-coming-off-the-bench storyline that has gone unnoticed.
Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans Saints: One week ahead of his 42nd birthday, Brees begins another journey toward what has been an elusive second Super Bowl ring. This particular run, however, will go into every oncoming game with the underlying notion of it being Brees' final one. Just getting to the big dance has been an obstacle since Brees and the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, despite being a consistent, high-seeded contender in recent years. Questions of Brees' arm strength have been asked the past two seasons, but the NFL's all-time leading passer has still proved he can play, completing 70.5 percent of his passes with a 24 to 6 TD-INT ratio in 12 games this season. Against this Bears defense, Brees will face a respectable squad that is middle of the pack in terms of yards and points allowed per game. Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson are special players who are liable to have a big game on any given Sunday. Brees will have the benefit of one of the NFL"s best offensive lines in front of him, but pressure of one's own success can often pit teams in uncomfortable situations, especially in games you're expected to win handily.
Matchup to watch
Bears run game vs. Saints defensive front: A key to the Bears' late-season success on offense has been their ability to run the football. Maintaining that success will be paramount in pulling off an upset. A major factor in the Bears finding a rushing attack midway through the season has been the health of their offensive line and that of running back David Montgomery, who's 99.7 rushing yards per game since Week 12 is third to only Derrick Henry (158.0) and Jonathan Taylor (130.2). Montgomery has also found the end zone in each of his last five games, but the residue of an effective rushing attack has schemed open throws for Trubisky when using play-action. Trubisky's 35.2 percent play-action rate led the NFL and he took advantage by posting a 105.0 passer rating on those throws. The Saints have allowed 11 TDs on play-action passes this season, which is tied for sixth most in the NFL. On dropback pass plays, the Saints allowed a 77.8 passer rating, which is the second-lowest in the NFL. Setting up Trubisky for success will be essential for Nagy, but it will only work with a respected running attack.
It'd be remiss not to mention the incredible streak of playoff woes that have haunted New Orleans the past three seasons -- a series of events that has dissipated all their recent regular-season success. It started with a 'Minnesota Miracle', continued with an infamous pass interference non-call in the NFC Championship, and last ended with a shocking first-round exit in New Orleans.
Saints fans, players and coaches must be somewhat affected by this insurmountable string of heartbreak. With Brees' rope getting shorter, time is of the essence in order to get their beloved QB a storied sendoff and for that the pressure may resonate.
Going up against a Bears team with nothing to lose -- anything can happen -- a Hail Mary, a referee's judgement, or the fateful mistake of overlooking a team. Perhaps no team knows this more than these Saints, and no team may be better prepared to overcome such demons amid an unpredictable NFC.