MINNEAPOLIS — Everywhere I went, fellow reporters had a question for me.
Why are you here?
I guess I don’t travel much these days but I gave them the same answer I gave in Miami last spring when I flew to witness the Bulls’ Play-In Tournament finale: I’m here to see history.
That’s what the gig is all about at its core, right? Bearing witness. Seeing something new and exciting and writing about what it was like.
The issue with Chicago sports right now is that “history” and “bearing witness” entails watching the Bulls lose a Play-In Tournament game and seeing the Bears win a division game for the first time since Nov. 25, 2021.
We’re not talking about “being in Cleveland for the Cubs’ World Series” kind of history here. The standards have been lowered quite a bit in recent years.
But I had an inkling that embattled Bears coach Matt Eberflus would break his nine-game losing streak in the NFC North on Monday Night Football. And I was proved correct. Barely. Or, Bear-ly in this case.
Eberflus and the Bears snuck out of town with a 12-10 victory in front of a disappointed home crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium and a disgusted national TV audience.
“And with the Benny Hill music playing in the background, this game is over.”
— Joe Buck and Troy Aikman speaking for pretty much anyone who watched this game. pic.twitter.com/vIfmKb1SuB
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) November 28, 2023
Was it a significantly impressive win? It was not. Was it aesthetically pleasing? Also no. Was it three hours of our collective lives that we’ll never get back? Yes, but that’s nothing new if you watch Bears football for fun or profit.
Somehow, the Bears didn’t score a touchdown despite coming up with an impressive four interceptions against Vikings quarterback Josh Dobbs. Cairo Santos kicked four field goals and that was enough. I was shocked to find out it’s the first time since 1993 that the Bears won a game without a touchdown. I figured that happened every other week in the Lovie Smith era.
— Kevin Fishbain (@kfishbain) November 28, 2023
If this were a different kind of Bears team and a different kind of season, this kind of ugly win would be looked at differently, much like all those unsightly Bears victories we’ve tried to forget.
But the Bears are 4-8 and the things that prevented them from securing an easy victory Monday night — Justin Fields’ two fourth-quarter fumbles, seven penalties for 76 yards, an often uncreative game plan — are why it’s tough to get excited about it.
It felt awkward to ask Eberflus how he felt about finally winning an NFC North game this deep into his coaching tenure. But I had to ask. He might only have two more chances to get one: at home against the Lions on Dec. 10 and in the season finale on Jan. 7 in Green Bay.
“Obviously, our goal is to win the division,” he said. “But more importantly, I believe the way we finished is going to be more lasting going into these next ballgames.”
It was impressive, I suppose, in that the Bears survived their own self-inflicted wounds to crawl to safety. The previous week, they coughed up a fourth-quarter lead and lost to Detroit, 31-26. It looked like it was happening again Monday night.
They were up 9-3 when Fields lost a fumble with just under 10 minutes to play and the Vikings turned that into a 17-yard Dobbs-to-TJ Hockenson touchdown after an eight-play, 77-yard drive to give the Vikings a 10-9 lead. Fields then fumbled again with 3 1/2 minutes left, but the defense held up and the Bears capitalized on their final drive with Fields getting some retribution when he hit DJ Moore for a 36-yard gain on third-and-10 with under a minute to go. Santos’ fourth field goal was the deciding score in what felt like a rugged Iowa-Minnesota game. (Minnesota actually beat Iowa 12-10 this year.)
“Relief, relief,” is how Fields described his feeling after it was over.
He said he thanked his teammates for picking him up after those turnovers. He thought about how he lectured rookie running back Roschon Johnson just a few plays before he himself fumbled.
“I really wanted to prove to my teammates I had their back,” he said, adding, “After the second (fumble), I was sick to my stomach. I’m not going to lie to you.”
If these final games are a referendum on Fields’ future as the Bears starting quarterback, then whatever he showed in moxie might have been wiped away by those turnovers. It’s GM Ryan Poles’ job to look at Fields objectively and dispassionately as he tries to figure out how he’s going to approach building a sustainable winner.
This game plan wasn’t about showcasing Fields’ dynamic arm, though. Mostly Fields threw a collection of screen passes to counteract the Vikings’ pass rush. It wasn’t entertaining, and frankly, it almost backfired.
Justin Fields completed 14 of 16 attempts behind the line of scrimmage, both career highs.
🔹 Air Yards/Attempt: 2.7 (Career Low)
🔹 U10 AY: 24/27, 155 yds (+9.3% CPOE)
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 28, 2023
But Fields did have a few impressive throws and used his legs throughout the game. He has been notoriously unreliable in clutch late-game situations, so just completing that pass to Moore on the final drive felt like a breakthrough of sorts, even if it’s just a normal pass that every starting QB in the NFL should be able to make.
“Our message was just finish, finish, finish,” Fields said. “There have been too many times this season we didn’t do a good job finishing.”
With that in mind, I found myself nodding my head when Bears players and Eberflus spoke about how good it felt to get any kind of win, let alone a divisional one. It wasn’t just pablum. This was only their seventh win in the last two seasons. Rough roads are a Chicago tradition. But still, imagine if Eberflus took an oh-fer in the NFC North over two seasons? If he gets fired after this season, at least he’ll have Monday night in Minneapolis.
In what’s become an unintentionally hilarious line, Poles said at his introductory news conference that the Bears were going to “take the North and never give it back.” The Bears are now 1-9 in the North, but after the one win, they’re feeling pretty confident again.
“We know what’s at stake,” veteran safety Eddie Jackson said, and I immediately thought he was talking about saving jobs at Halas Hall.
But instead, Jackson, who played for the Bears when they were actually good, pivoted to, “We’ve got our last five games left after this and we’ve got to win out for us to make the playoffs and I feel like that’s our focus right now.”
I believe that’s what the kids call “feeling yourself.” But hey, I dig the goal-setting.
Of course, to make a run for the playoffs, which seems insane to even type, the Bears would have to accomplish something they haven’t done since Eberflus took over: win consecutive games.
Of course, I’ll be there on Dec. 10 to see if that happens. I just don’t miss opportunities to see history unfold before my eyes.
(Photo of Bears kicker Cairo Santos (8) celebrating with teammates after his winning field goal: David Berding / Getty Images)