In all likelihood, the loser of Sunday’s Bears-Vikings game at Soldier Field can kiss their hopes of winning the NFC North goodbye.
Of the 80 division winners in the last 10 years, only two have lost their first two division games in a given season. The 2019 Bears or 2019 Vikings cannot count on being as lucky as the 2011 Denver Broncos — who, under John Fox, won the AFC West with an 8-8 record — or the 2010 Indianapolis Colts.
So under that cloud, Sunday’s game is very much a must-win for both teams on the field.
Bears coach Matt Nagy said he’s communicated the must-win nature of the Vikings game to his players this week, though more as an undercurrent to the team’s preparation rather than a blaring, constant message.
“It’s just talking to them on a daily basis and never making it where you all of a sudden unload on them on how big of a game it is,” Nagy said. “You spread it out over the week and you hit different points of the game. So you can touch about different aspects of what we want to affect, how we want to attack them and why it’s important.
“And maybe in there, you sprinkle in the impact of a division game and the impact of playing at home. Maybe you give them some numbers on how we did in the past and what it means. History lessons of other teams and how they do. I’m not all about just unloading on them one big thing where this is it, this is it. I kind of just organically sprinkle it in throughout the week.”
The Bears, like just about every other NFL team, aren’t talking about expectations during the season. But Sunday’s game feels like one that’ll set the expectations for the season’s final 12 games. To wit:
— If the Bears lose, they’re 0-2 in the NFC North and shouldn’t be expected to win the division. The playoffs won’t be out of the question, but the question will have to be asked: What, in 2019, has this team done to show they’ll be in the playoff race come December?
— If the Bears win, they’ll get on their plane to London with a 3-1 record ahead of playing a bad Oakland Raiders team at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Everything expected of this team before Sept. 5 — an NFC North title and possibly a first-round bye in the playoffs — will remain on the table.
This game carries so much extra weight because it’s a division game, and because the Bears already lost to the Green Bay Packers at home in Week 1. It’s worth noting the 2018 Bears were often at their best in big games, at least during the regular season — Week 11 against the Vikings, Week 14 against the Rams, Week 15 against the Packers — and didn’t shy away from the pressure or spotlight.
So that’s the stage for Sunday. It’ll be a physical game, one in which securing a win will not be easy, but will be necessary.
“You know it’s going to be a physical battle,” outside linebacker Khalil Mack said. “Pop ya’ Advils and get ready. It’s going down.”