NFL Winners and Losers: Bears might own the NFC North for a long time

Yahoo Sports

The story of Chicago Bears offensive lineman Charles Leno proposing to his girlfriend after the Bears beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday was fun.

But pay special attention to what he said when asked if he would have still proposed had Chicago lost.

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“I knew we would win,” Leno said, according to Bears sideline reporter Mark Grote.

That’s a good line after you’ve already won, but there’s a message attached. The Bears don’t seem to view this wildly successful season, which now includes an NFC North championship, as a temporary thing. Nor should they. They expected to beat the Packers, and rightfully so. It has been a long time since they could feel that way.

It might just be the beginning. The Bears have the pieces to win the division next season, and the season after that, and maybe a couple more after that. This isn’t a fluke.

Chicago didn’t even play its best game on Sunday and still won 24-17. A failed fake punt in the middle of the field was probably ill-advised, but give head coach Matt Nagy credit for staying true to his aggressive style. The Bears fumbled away a Tarik Cohen-to-Jordan Howard handoff on a tricky play. The Bears’ mistakes kept the Packers in the game. At no point, though, did the Packers seem like the better team.

It was similar to Week 11 in Chicago, when the Vikings were clearly outclassed by the Bears.

A few weeks ago, when Aaron Rodgers was trying to rally his team, he spoke about the steps for winning out and making the playoffs, and that included “go to Chicago, a place we’ve won a number of times, beat them.” The Packers had won eight in a row at Chicago. The days of the Packers, Vikings or both counting on a couple wins against the Bears each season seem to be over. The Packers’ chances at upsetting the Bears (that line would have seemed odd three months ago) basically ended late in the fourth quarter when safety Eddie Jackson picked off Rodgers, snapping his NFL record streak of passes without an interception. It was fitting.

“It was special as hell. I’m not going to lie,” Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said, according to Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “I’m not going to sit here and lie to you guys and say I didn’t enjoy taking it. Green Bay is not our friend.”

Chicago’s success this season is surprising only because it came earlier than expected. It was easy to be optimistic about the future, once the Bears were freed of John Fox and his overmatched staff. The Bears had a tremendous offseason, culminating with the Khalil Mack heist. It seemed this could be a growth season for them, then they would be a problem for the rest of the division in 2019 and beyond.

They instead arrived this season. And they’re not going anywhere.

Every significant Bears skill-position player is 27 years old or younger. Of the team’s top 13 tacklers, only three are older than 27: Hicks, linebacker Danny Trevathan and cornerback Prince Amukamara — and none of them have hit their 30th birthday. It’s a young team with a young dynamic head coach in Nagy. They’re the best team in the NFC North this season and they’re going to get better. Having Mitchell Trubisky on his rookie contract for a couple more years helps their flexibility.

That’s a scary thought for the Packers and Vikings (the Lions need to get much better before they’re worried about who’s the top team in the division). Maybe Green Bay makes a grand-slam coaching hire and rebounds right away, or the Vikings figure out how to beat a good team over the offseason. But it sure didn’t seem like the Bears’ division title on Sunday will be the last one for this group.

Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy celebrates after clinching an NFC North title on Sunday. (AP)
Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy celebrates after clinching an NFC North title on Sunday. (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 15 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Indianapolis Colts: There’s no need to panic about the Dallas Cowboys. Last week was virtually a playoff game for them. They beat the Eagles in overtime, practically clinching the NFC East title, yet they had no shot at a first-round bye in the NFC. It’s no surprise they were flat Sunday.

The Colts will take it. And give them credit for dominating a Cowboys team that was one of the hottest in the NFL coming in. The Colts looked great in the 23-0 win. They got a huge fourth-down stop deep in their own territory early in the game, after a bad third-down drop by the Cowboys, and cruised from there.

It was a great win for the Colts, who improved to 8-6. They’re right in the middle of the AFC wild-card race. Now the Colts play at home against the awful Giants next week, then play at Tennessee in a Week 17 game that might decide the sixth seed in the AFC (and looks like a decent bet to be flexed to prime time).

Derrick Henry: Where has this been from Henry all season?

Henry, mostly a role player for the Tennessee Titans this season, followed up his incredible 238-yard game against the Jaguars with another big performance in a 17-0 win over the Giants. In the driving rain, the Titans rode their 247-pound back hard. Henry had 33 carries for 170 yards and two touchdowns. Henry and the defense were the reasons for the road win.

Henry has shown flashes of being a star, but the Titans have rarely used him like they did Sunday. The former Heisman Trophy winner is emerging as a force late in the season, and the Titans are going to try to ride him to a wild-card berth.

Josh Johnson and Jay Gruden: Johnson broke into the NFL in 2009. He started four games that year, and the Buccaneers lost each one. He got one more start in 2011. The Buccaneers lost that one too.

Johnson has seemingly been on every team’s roster since then, but hadn’t thrown an NFL pass from 2011 to last week’s blowout loss against the Giants. Washington, which had lost its top two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, turned to Johnson to start on Sunday out of desperation.

Johnson finally got to experience a win as a starting NFL quarterback. He threw for 151 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 49 more, and a last-second field goal lifted the Redskins to a 16-13 road win over the Jaguars (in a related note, if Jaguars coach Doug Marrone isn’t fired the moment the season ends, the Jaguars have officially given up).

The win came after a report from NFL Network on Sunday morning that Gruden wasn’t a lock to return in 2019 as Redskins coach. And one win might not change that. But getting a win with Johnson, who was a free agent until he officially signed with Washington on Dec. 5, will look good when the Redskins make that decision.

John Harbaugh: Maybe it’s a reach to give Harbaugh too much credit for the Ravens’ turnaround. He was forced into playing Lamar Jackson because Joe Flacco was hurt. When Harbaugh announced he was sticking with Jackson, it was no surprise.

Still, Harbaugh had to give the green light to the Ravens playing a different style than everyone else in the NFL. He also had to stick with Jackson when an argument could be made for turning back to Flacco. Jackson became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 70 or more yards in five straight games as the Ravens beat the Buccaneers 20-12. Baltimore looks like a playoff team, something that didn’t seem likely when the Ravens were 4-5.

Harbaugh looked like he might be on the hot seat weeks ago. It doesn’t seem that’s the case anymore, and Harbaugh helped dig himself out of that hole by trusting a rookie quarterback and an offense that doesn’t look like any other in the NFL right now.

LOSERS

Tom Brady: Brady has been heaped with plenty of praise during his career, which is probably the greatest in NFL history. It’s OK to point out when he deserves criticism.

And whatever he was doing on a fourth-quarter interception against Pittsburgh deserves some criticism.

Brady made a play you might see from a rookie. On second-and-goal from the Steelers’ 12-yard line with less than eight minutes left and the Patriots trailing 14-10, Brady retreated from the rush. Then, fading back, he threw one up for grabs near the end zone. Joe Haden came down with a crucial interception. It was the kind of mistake you rarely see from Brady. Later, trailing 17-10, Brady drove the Patriots again and threw poorly on three straight incompletions to end the game. The Steelers won 17-10.

The Patriots no longer have an inside track for the second bye in the AFC. That’s the Houston Texans, who currently are the No. 2 seed with two games left. Seeding is important for the Patriots because they’re 3-5 on the road this season. According to NFL Research, it’s the first time since 2002 the Patriots have lost consecutive road games in December. The Steelers weren’t particularly sharp, giving the Patriots multiple opportunities to steal the game. But New England couldn’t do it, and Brady was part of the reason.

Josh Rosen: Baker Mayfield has been an instant star. Sam Darnold has his moments on a bad Jets team. Josh Allen has been better than a lot of people figured. Lamar Jackson isn’t conventional, but he’s getting the job done for the Ravens.

Among the rookie quarterbacks, Rosen is the one struggling most.

On Sunday, Rosen threw his fourth pick-six of the season. He had another interception and a fumble, and was pulled out of a 40-14 blowout defeat to the Falcons with a 38.4 passer rating. It wasn’t good.

A lot of rookie quarterbacks struggle, and there are significant questions about whether the Cardinals have the right coaching staff in place. Still, Rosen’s rookie struggles are significant and concerning. He has 10 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He has thrown for more than 240 yards in a game just once, a 252-yard game when he had 40 attempts. He’s averaging a touch over 6 yards per attempt, which is poor.

Rosen isn’t a bust because of a bad rookie season on a 3-11 team. But while other rookie quarterbacks are showing why they were first-round picks, there are some legitimate questions about Rosen moving forward.

John DeFilippo: DeFilippo was fired as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator after an ugly Monday night loss at Seattle. Many analysts spent the rest of the week defending DeFilippo, who was a hot coaching name after his work as the Eagles quarterbacks coach last season.

Maybe DeFilippo was a problem after all?

Here’s what the Vikings did without him Sunday: 418 yards, 41 points and a blowout win over the Miami Dolphins. There was one ugly pick-six by Kirk Cousins, but the offense — which was strong last season with Pat Shurmur calling plays — generally looked good. It was a season high in points for Minnesota. The Vikings had failed to gain more than 283 yards in four of five games before playing well Sunday.

Maybe it’s a one-week bounce for the Vikings and they’ll go back to struggling on offense next week. But on Sunday, it’s fair to wonder if DeFilippo was a big part of the problem and the Vikings made the right move.

Matt Patricia and the backsliding Lions: At the end of last season, the Lions fired Jim Caldwell. In doing so, general manager Bob Quinn made a statement that 9-7 wasn’t good enough.

On Sunday, the Lions lost their ninth game this season with Patricia. They lost 14-13 to a Bills team that isn’t as talented as Detroit, especially with LeSean McCoy out, but gets the most out of what talent it has. The Lions have been struck by some injuries, but it doesn’t seem they’re maximizing what talent is left standing.

The Lions are much worse this season after firing Caldwell. Patricia has had some weird, off-putting moments and hasn’t had the positive results to justify them. Patricia likely isn’t getting fired after one season, and rookie coaches can learn on the job like all rookies in the NFL, but what from this season should give Lions fans confidence they have the right coach in place?

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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