How will Nagy's Bears handle Sunday night spotlight?
The drought is over.
Sunday night's Bears-Vikings showdown at Soldier Field for first place in the NFC North marks the end of a long stretch of inconsequential football games in Chicago.
The Bears have not played a game this meaningful this late in the season in nearly five years, not since Marc Trestman's first team went into the 2013 season finale needing a victory at home against the Packers to claim the NFC North title (they lost). Cornerback Sherrick McManis is the only Bear on the current 53-man roster who played in that game, so it will be interesting to see how a fairly youthful group responds under first-year coach Matt Nagy.
At 6-3, the Bears hold a slim edge on the 5-3-1 Vikings in what could come down to a two-team race. The Packers' 27-24 Thursday night loss to the Seahawks not only dropped them to 4-5-1 but exposed their flaws on both sides of the ball. For the Bears, it's an opportunity to prove they can defeat a good team, or at least one with a winning record, which they have yet to do.
"Big game, under the lights, these are the games you live for," said OLB Khalil Mack, who had a sack, a pick-6, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble in the Week One prime-time game vs. the Packers. "You want to be in a spot where you can kind of clinch this thing down the line. This is going to be a game that can very well tell the story toward the end of the season."
Even more attention will be focused on this game since it was flexed from noon to 7:20 p.m. To demonstrate further the Bears' relevance, their next home game, Dec. 9 against the 9-1 Rams, was also flexed from noon to night. The prime-time exposure and the heady feeling that comes from the rarefied air of first place have elevated the excitement level at Halas Hall.
Nagy's message to his players is simple: Embrace the moment but don't be intimidated by it.
"There is an energy right now with us that I think is normal in our situation," Nagy said. "I like to put things out there for our guys and make sure they understand where we're at. 'OK, this is the situation we put ourselves in, now how do we respond to it?'
"I told guys we had the first two games of the year with Green Bay and Seattle (in prime time). We're fortunate to have those night games and to be able to play in front of everybody. Not every team gets that especially coming off of what we came off of (a 5-11 season). So for us to be able to have more of those, you want that. Now we've got to perform."
Nagy seems to relish the spotlight, and hopes his players do the same.
"If you're not enjoying the moment, then why are you playing?" Nagy said. "It's not that hard to me. I like to have fun. I like to have fun when I coach. I like our players to have fun when they play. You've got to know where that line is at and when you are crossing the line. We're now in a position to be able to play at home in front of our great fans to have some fun in a game that means something. We're in a good spot to take care of business."
A victory would give the Bears a commanding lead over the Packers, who they play at home Dec. 16, and a 1½-game lead over the Vikings, who they face on the road in the regular-season finale.
"We know how much this win (could) to separate us from everyone else in the (division)," Cornerback Prince Amukamara said. "It could be looked at as a statement game, but we're really just looking for a win because we know how important it is to win the division. Once you win the division, you get into the big dance, you get into the playoffs."
A loss doesn't eliminate the Bears from the playoff chase by any means, since there are only four other NFC teams above .500, besides them and the Vikings. But it adds a difficulty factor.
Defensive end Akiem Hicks says he loves the attention of a big game with everyone watching.
"Flex them all, why not?" Hicks said. "That's the type of pressure that you want. You want the league to give you that respect and say, 'Hey, these guys are playing good football. We want to see them as the only game on TV that night.' "
The Bears have earned that respect, but how will they respond to it?