Af­ter big jump, Bears out to KO de­fend­ing champs

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

LAKE FOR­EST, ILL. — Not long af­ter he was hired, Matt Nagy watched the Su­per Bowl with his wife at a bar near the Chicago Bears’ prac­tice fa­cil­ity. His good friend Doug Ped­er­son was coach­ing the Philadel­phia Ea­gles to their first Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship.

The place was just about empty. He even had to ask for the game to be turned on. “It was awe­some,” he re­called. Nagy hopes things don’t go so well for his pal when the NFC North cham­pion Bears host the Ea­gles to­day in a wild-card game packed with sto­ry­lines.

Chicago (12-4) is in the play­offs for the first time since the 2010 team won the di­vi­sion, mak­ing a huge jump in Nagy’s first sea­son af­ter four straight last-place fin­ishes. The Bears are on a 9-1 tear; the Ea­gles (9-7) have won five of six.

Chicago quar­ter­back Mitchell Tru­bisky will make his first play­off ap­pear­ance.

Ea­gles quar­ter­back Nick Foles — last year’s Su­per Bowl MVP — will try to de­liver an­other stand­out per­for­mance while fill­ing in for Car­son Wentz. He’s 6-0 in those sit­u­a­tions the past two sea­sons.

Foles was par­tic­u­larly good the past three games with Wentz side­lined by a back in­jury. He tied Philip Rivers’ NFL record in last week’s win over Washington by com­plet­ing 25 con­sec­u­tive passes. He will start this one af­ter leav­ing with a chest in­jury against the Red­skins.

Al­shon Jef­fery will play in Chicago for the first time since the star re­ceiver left the Bears af­ter five sea­sons to sign with Philadel­phia in 2017. Chicago’s Trey Bur­ton will try to beat the Ea­gles this time af­ter throw­ing a touch­down to Foles on a trick play — “Philly Spe­cial” — in the Su­per Bowl vic­tory over New Eng­land.

There will be Long brothers — Chicago guard Kyle and Philadel­phia de­fen­sive end Chris — on op­pos­ing teams.

And there will be two coaches on op­po­site side­lines with a strong bond formed while work­ing un­der Andy Reid in Philadel­phia and Kansas City.

“I told him at the own­ers meet­ing this past off­sea­son, he got that Su­per Bowl, right. I’m try­ing to fol­low his lead here,” Nagy said. “He prob­a­bly doesn’t want to hear that right now, but I want to stick on that path. Ton of re­spect for him.” The feel­ing is mu­tual. “Right away, you (could) tell that he was go­ing to work him­self up the ranks,” Ped­er­son said. Some things to know: NO-NAME SEC­ONDARY: The Ea­gles have re­lied on back­ups and re­serves af­ter los­ing three-fourths of their start­ing sec­ondary to sea­son-ending in­juries. Se­condyear pro Ra­sul Dou­glas and rookie Avonte Mad­dox have stepped up at cor­ner­back since starters Ron­ald Darby and Jalen Mills went down. Vet­eran Corey Gra­ham re­placed safety Rod­ney McLeod. Mad­dox even played safety when Gra­ham was out. Sec­ond-year pro Tre Sul­li­van also has filled in at safety and former Bears de­fen­sive back Cre’Von LeBlanc has played nickel cor­ner­back with Sid­ney Jones out of the lineup. The group has im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly the past month.

“They’ve both set­tled into those roles well and they’ve made enough plays for us to win five of our last six and get in,” de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Jim Schwartz said of LeBlanc and Sul­li­van.

Dou­glas, who played just 10 snaps in the first five games, led the team with three in­ter­cep­tions. The an­chor in the sec­ondary is Mal­colm Jenk­ins, who played ev­ery de­fen­sive snap and an­other 136 on spe­cial teams.

ON TAR­GET: Like Foles, Tru­bisky is on a roll. The No. 2 over­all pick in the 2017 draft, he threw three in­ter­cep­tions in a 15-6 vic­tory over the Los An­ge­les Rams on Dec. 9 af­ter missing the pre­vi­ous two games be­cause of a shoul­der in­jury. Since then, he’s been mak­ing all the right reads. Tru­bisky has a 109.7 rat­ing the past three games, com­plet­ing 63 of 83 passes for 644 and three touch­downs with­out an in­ter­cep­tion.

BACK­FIELD BY COM­MIT­TEE: Af­ter re­ly­ing on un­drafted rookie Josh Adams for a bulk of the car­ries fol­low­ing sea­son-ending in­juries to Jay Ajayi and Corey Cle­ment, the Ea­gles are split­ting the ball car­ry­ing among Adams, vet­eran Dar­ren Spro­les and Wen­dell Small­wood. Adams ran 11 times for 50 yards last week. Small­wood was 12 for 53 and Spro­les had seven for 24.

MOV­ING ON? Bears de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Vic Fan­gio in­sisted he was pre­par­ing only for the Ea­gles, not any head coach­ing in­ter­views. “I’ve done zero on that sec­ond part,” he said. The 60-year-old Fan­gio, a former Ravens as­sis­tant, never has been a head coach. But he has in­ter­viewed for sev­eral open­ings, in­clud­ing the one that went to Nagy in Chicago. In his four sea­sons with the Bears, Fan­gio has trans­formed a de­fense that ranked among the worst in team his­tory. The Mon­sters of the Mid­way led the NFL in rush­ing de­fense, take­aways (36) and in­ter­cep­tions (27) while ty­ing for third in sacks (50).

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