The NFC North champion Bears will host the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday in the wildcard round of the NFC playoffs. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:
(1) How will the Bears defense fare against Eagles super sub Nick Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP?
A dominant defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in several key categories this season will be challenged by a quarterback in Foles who has starred in place of the injured Carson Wentz for the second straight year.
Foles replaced Wentz last season in early December and led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl championship, earning MVP honors in the game after passing for 373 yards and three touchdowns and catching a TD pass on a fourth-down trick play from Trey Burton. A year later, Foles has led Philadelphia into the playoffs by winning all three of his starts since Wentz was shelved with a back injury, passing for 962 yards and six touchdowns in victories over the Rams, Texans and Redskins.
"He knows the system really well," said coach Matt Nagy. "So right away within your own peers and your teammates, they trust you because of how well you know it. And then his talents that he has, he's a very confident kid in the huddle. He knows where he's going with the football, and he's a playmaker."
Foles will face a Bears defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL this season in takeaways (36), interceptions (27), interception return touchdowns (5), lowest passer rating (72.9), fewest rushing yards per game (80.0) and fewest rushing TDs (5).
(2) How will second-year Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky perform in his first playoff game?
Trubisky has gained valuable experience playing in big games this season—most notably in home wins over the Vikings and Rams on Sunday Night Football and a division-clinching victory over the Packers. But Sunday marks his first career playoff start.
Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich both said during the week that they want Trubisky to approach the wildcard game just like any other. "Control himself," Helfrich said. "Do exactly what we've asked him to do, nothing more, nothing less. If his eyes and feet are in the right place, if his head's in the right place, then he can be great."
The Bears are confident that Trubisky will pick up Sunday where he left off in the final three regular-season games when he completed 63 of 83 passes for 644 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over the Packers, 49ers and Vikings. The victories over Green Bay and Minnesota eliminated both teams from playoff contention.
Asked what indications he's seen that Trubisky is ready to make his first postseason start, Nagy said: "He just handles adversity. He knows how to run this offense now. He's at a point right now where he calls a play in the huddle, he can start looking at the defense rather than looking at the offense."
(3) Will the Bears continue to rely on Jordan Howard and their running game?
The Bears established the run on their first possession in last Sunday's regular-season finale in Minnesota, taking an early 7-0 lead and slowing the Vikings' potent pass rush. Howard ran for 55 yards on three carries on the drive, including a season-long 42-yard run and a 6-yard touchdown. The third-year pro finished the game with a season-high 109 yards and two TDs on 21 carries.
Helfrich felt that Howard "made a statement" with his performance, saying: "He truly broke some tackles and ran through some guys."
A similar statement against an Eagles defense that ranked seventh against the run and 30th versus the pass during the regular season would provide a major boost for the Bears, who rushed for 167 yards against Minnesota, their third highest total of the year.
Nagy feels the run game is beginning to click, saying: "We're starting to feel confident in certain schemes and when you have that now you can get rid of all the stuff that you don't feel good about you were using before to try to make work."
Howard's production increased late in the season; he rushed for 323 yards in the Bears' final four games—including his only two 100-yard outings—after gaining 203, 236 and 173 in the first three quarters of the season, respectively.
(4) Will All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson be able to play for the Bears, and if he does, how will his ankle injury affect him?
The second-year pro will be a game-time decision with a sprained ankle that forced him to miss the Bears' final two regular-season contests. Jackson returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis for the first time since sustaining the injury while returning an Aaron Rodgers interception Dec. 16 in a win over the Packers.
"He's literally going to go right up to it," Nagy said Friday. "We'll test him out, see how he is. If he's good, let's go; if not, then we won't. We're going to be smart with him."
Jackson has been one of the Bears' most consistent playmakers during a breakout 2018 season. He's second on the defense with a career-high six interceptions and has scored three touchdowns—two on interception returns and one on a fumble return.
Nagy conceded Friday that Jackson, who was replaced by Deon Bush in the starting lineup the past two weeks, could play despite not being 100 percent.
"There's a chance of that," said the Bears coach. "The hard part is where he's at, and we've dealt with this before is just trying to see, 'OK, if he's 'X' percent, whatever that is, is that something that is smart for him, is that smart for the team?'"