Column: Finishing touch proves elusive for Matt Eberflus’ Chicago Bears — and it will define them until they buck the trend

The Detroit Lions have been one of the best stories in the NFL this season, but they have some fine-tuning to do before they’re taken seriously as a contender to make a deep postseason run.

The Lions scored two touchdowns in 2 minutes, 30 seconds Sunday, rallying from a 12-point deficit to defeat the Chicago Bears 31-26 at Ford Field. It was their biggest comeback since a 14-point rally to top the Bears 31-30 at Soldier Field on Nov. 13, 2022.

In fact, the last four times the Lions have rallied from 10 or more down to win have come against the Bears, including a 34-30 win on Dec. 6, 2020, at Soldier Field and a 27-24 victory on Nov. 19, 2017, at Ford Field.

The Lions’ knack for late heroics ran out Thursday when they fell behind by 17 at halftime against the Green Bay Packers and lost 29-22 after failing to recover an onside kick with 41 seconds remaining. The Lions needed a furious rally to nip the last-place Bears and were thoroughly manhandled up front in a loss to the third-place Packers, so they have things to clean up.

The Bears face the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium looking to end a 12-game NFC North losing streak. The Bears struggled with the Vikings’ pressure packages but outgained them 275-220 in the first meeting in Week 6, when quarterback Justin Fields suffered a dislocated right thumb. A Tyson Bagent fumble was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter, and the Vikings held on for a 19-13 win.

Five of the Bears’ last six losses have been by a touchdown or less, the exception an uninspiring 30-13 road loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 29. They were tied with the New Orleans Saints entering the fourth quarter three weeks ago, had an ugly win against the Carolina Panthers and melted down against the Lions. Before that, the Bears lost to the Vikings and dropped a 31-28 decision to the Denver Broncos that included a series of late-game mishaps.

Until Matt Eberflus’ team discovers a way to put teams away in the fourth quarter, this will define the Bears. In talking with Lions defensive tackle Alim McNeill after the game last week, I noted how stunning the turnaround was considering the Bears dominated all phases through 55 minutes.

“But they’ve got to finish it,” said McNeill, a third-round pick in 2021 who has helped fuel the Lions’ resurgence. “Fight. It’s just a mentality. You’ve got to finish, and that’s what we did. There was a lot of things that we were beating ourselves on — a lot of things. We came together.”

The Lions rallied the week before to knock off the Chargers, and their young roster knows how to battle through the end of close games. The Lions won eight of their final 10 games last season after a 1-6 start had plenty of folks questioning coach Dan Campbell’s future. Of the six losses were games decided by four, three, four and three points, so it’s not as if they were blown out.

Finishing. We all know it when we see it, but it’s not something coaches can draw up on a dry-erase board. How difficult is the concept to learn, or maybe more importantly, put into action?

“It ain’t easy,” McNeill said. “If you look at the previous two years, three years, if you look at how we started last year, a lot of those games we didn’t finish. Now we’re finishing. We’ve got a lot more work to do. We knew we were going to do that (against the Bears).”

Finishing could have shown up a number of ways. One defensive stop would have done the job. The Lions went 75 yards on six plays in 1:16 and 73 yards on 11 plays in 2:04. They faced only two third downs — both needing 2 yards to convert — on the two series. The Bears got three hits on quarterback Jared Goff, who was pressured into three interceptions earlier, and were caught by a really good call against Cover-3 on the 32-yard touchdown pass to Jameson Williams.

The Bears could have run out the clock in between Lions scores but went three-and-punt. The play calling on those snaps has been the subject of much consternation but obscured what should be a greater dissection of how the defense wilted with the game on the line.

“I always say your losses are always lessons,” middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said. “Even though that was a devastating loss, there’s a lot of lessons that we can take from it, as far as (where) we want to go as a team, where we are right now and things that we want to improve on. That’s just up to us to be honest with one another and just improve on those things.

“Everything is lessons. The good stuff is lessons that we did in that game. And also the bad stuff that we didn’t get accomplished is lessons in that game. It’s up to us to come and get that corrected. That’s the key message. That’s what everybody is taking accountability for right now. Nobody’s pointing fingers. That’s just what it comes down to.”

Don’t overlook the significance of the remaining six games. While some want to focus only on draft capital and how continuing to stack losses would improve the team’s standing come April — the Bears hold the Nos. 1 and 4 picks in the 2024 draft entering Week 12 — it’s probably instructive to look at how the Lions’ strong finish in 2022 led to success this season.

The Lions are 16-5 in their last 21 games, and while it’s not easy to parlay success from one season to the next, the core of that roster learned how to win and close games during the second half of 2022.

Imagine if the Bears had closed games against the Broncos and Lions. In an alternate universe, they would be 5-6 entering Monday night, one game out of the final two playoff spots in the NFC. What a difference that would make in the discussions about the franchise.

Speaking of the Packers, they have won three of four with quarterback Jordan Love completing 65.2% of his passes for 1,107 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions and with the youngest wide receivers and tight ends in the league.

Twelve starts into his career, Love could be rounding into the quarterback the Packers hoped they would have to pick up where Aaron Rodgers left off.

That’s another reason for the Bears to get going — the competition in the division is finding ways to improve. The Vikings are a remarkable 5-1 since losing their best player, wide receiver Justin Jefferson, to a hamstring injury and 2-1 since quarterback Kirk Cousins was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.

The Bears have been in the majority of games this season, especially recently. They have closed the talent gap in that regard. Now it’s about learning how to put opponents away.

“It’s just something that can’t really be explained,” defensive end Montez Sweat said. “It’s just those little things that help you win at the end of the game.”

Little things that are easy to identify when things are going right. Little things that are proving to be big obstacles right now.


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