The final hours of the NFC wild-card race Sunday wound up looking an awful lot like the NFL season in general.
A dose of brilliance, a lot of predictability, emergency fill-ins and a mad scramble just to finish.
In the end, Aaron Rodgers (providing the brilliance with a perfect first half) led the Packers to a victory over the Bears that locked up the NFC's No. 1 seed. Mitchell Trubisky did the expected -- lots of short, safe passes in a methodical game plan -- for Chicago, continuing a month-long effort that was enough for the Bears to sneak in to one of the remaining wild-card spots when the Los Angeles Rams, led by backup John Wolford, eked out enough points to beat the Arizona Cardinals, led by Kyler Murray's backup, Chris Streveler. The results: The Bears and Rams joined the surging Bucs as the three NFC wild cards and the Cardinals were left out, with little more than one of the plays of the season -- the Hail Murray -- to show for 2020.
What does it all mean for the two wild cards that clinched on Sunday?
After as streaky a season as you'll ever see -- Chicago went 5-1 to start, then lost six straight, then won three in a row -- a wild-card spot means that the franchise blowup that felt inevitable when the Bears were completing the six-game meltdown a month ago is off the table. Pulling out of that tailspin and putting Chicago back into the playoff picture almost certainly saved Matt Nagy's job, as NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that the head coach is expected to return next season.
The Bears, the NFC's seventh seed, play the Saints on Super Wild Card Weekend (4:40 p.m. ET on Sunday) and they'll need much more than 16 points to be competitive in that game. Whether the offense can be explosive against good defenses -- the Saints had the third overall defense entering Week 17 -- is why the Bears have a huge decision to make about Trubisky for next year. The Bears declined Trubisky's fifth-year option, so he will be a free agent in March. Only a few weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that he was gone. But the last few games have to cause the Bears to at least rethink the idea, particularly if a market does not develop for Trubisky and he could return on a reasonable, short-term contract.
When Nagy discussed in early December the decision to bench Trubisky in favor of Nick Foles in the first month of the season, he made it clear it was not just because of one bad game early this season; it was the body of work over the years that got him benched.
Trubisky and the offense were definitely improved since he retook the starting job in week 12, and that is a big part of the reason why Chicago will play next weekend. The Bears, with Nagy reportedly more involved again in play-calling, scored at least 30 points in each of the four games leading up to the season finale, although those games were against the bottom-feeders of NFL defenses. Still, Trubisky was 6-3 as a starter this season. And he was mostly exactly what the Bears wanted him to be Sunday: He got the ball out quickly, threw short, safe passes, got first downs on sneaks, and uncorked one big pass that stressed the Packers' defense – a 53-yarder to Darnell Mooney. For most of the game, he kept the Bears hanging around against Rodgers, the likely MVP. But he also had the one brutal interception late in the fourth quarter that all but ended any comeback hopes, and the Bears went just 1-for-5 in the red zone. Remove that 53-yard completion, and Trubisky completed 32 passes for 199 yards, an average of 6.2 yards per completion.
It will be a fascinating offseason for the Bears. But this wild-card appearance was so wholly unexpected just a month ago that it deserves to be celebrated first.
"Sorry I'm not all balloons right now," Nagy said about backing in to the postseason after Sunday's loss. That just about summed up the season.
Los Angeles Rams
You're going to hear a lot about John Wolford's Wall Street and AAF careers this week. The Rams backup quarterback, playing for Jared Goff, who is out with a broken thumb, completed 22 of 38 passes for 231 yards with an interception as the Rams beat the Cardinals to clinch the NFC's sixth seed. They'll play the Seahawks, with whom they split in the regular season, at 4:40 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Sean McVay praised Wolford's athleticism, recognition of coverages and resilience, but when asked if he would start next week, he only replied, "We'll see."
Like the Bears, the Rams have had a weird year. They looked like they were among the best teams in the NFL when they beat the Seahawks and Bucs back-to-back and later thrashed the Patriots. But a loss to the Jets was inexplicable and they also lost twice to the injury-depleted 49ers. The offense was 19th in scoring entering the final week and, as uneven as Goff has been, his absence certainly doesn't help. Nor does Cooper Kupp being on the COVID-19 list, as he was Sunday. Kupp led the Rams in receptions this season and his availability for Super Wild Card Weekend is unknown.
But the Rams are, as ever, powered by their defense, which entered the final week of the regular season ranked first overall in the league, first in passing defense and third in rushing defense. That they had a pick-six off Cardinals backup quarterback Chris Streveler should be no surprise. Also not a surprise: that Aaron Donald said playing the Seahawks again was exactly what the Rams wanted. So did we.