5 things to watch for in the Chicago Bears’ season finale, including Matt Nagy’s closing act and Jaylon Johnson’s coveted matchup — plus our Week 18 predictions

The Chicago Bears will close their season Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, facing the Minnesota Vikings in a game that has no playoff implications. The Bears are hoping to finish the year on a three-game winning streak but head into the weekend as 5½-point underdogs against a Vikings team that beat them 17-9 three weeks ago.

With kickoff of Sunday’s game nearing, here’s a snapshot look at the matchup.

Chicago Bears (6-10) at Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

  • Kickoff: Noon Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
  • TV and radio: FOX-32, WBBM-AM 780, WCFS-FM 105.9, WRTO-AM 1200 (Spanish).
  • The line: Vikings by 5½. Over/under: 44½.

1. Pressing question

<mark class=”hl_orange”>Is this the end of the road for Bears coach Matt Nagy?</mark>

Probably. It’s hard to find anyone in the league who isn’t expecting Nagy to be fired after Sunday’s game. Which likely leaves Nagy to follow the paths of his two predecessors, John Fox and Marc Trestman, who each ended their tenures as Bears coach in Minneapolis.

Nagy is 34-30 during the regular season during his time in Chicago and lost both his playoff games. After a five-game losing streak in October and November dropped the Bears to 3-7 this season, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Nagy’s days with the organization were numbered.

Still, whether Nagy has done more reflecting and lamenting privately, he has publicly steered around discussing his coaching fate and instead has pushed to keep the focus on each week’s preparation for the next game.

On Friday, after leading what many believe will be his last full practice as Bears coach, Nagy again expressed pride in the way his players have continued to grind and invest in their preparation even with the team out of playoff contention since mid-December.

“When things don’t go as well as you want them to go, how do you react?” Nagy said. “Do you change? Do you treat people differently? Are you a different head coach? Are you a different type of player? Because as they say, that reveals your true character.

“In the end, we can all look back and say, ‘How did we react during a tough time?’ And I think everybody in this building can tell you, ‘We reacted pretty well.’ ”

For Nagy, that counts for something. And the Bears have an opportunity to finish their season on a three-game winning streak.

2. Player in the spotlight

Andy Dalton admitted Friday that one thought bounces around his head quite often.

What would have happened if I hadn’t gotten hurt?

Who knows how the Bears season might have been different had Dalton not suffered a bone bruise in his left knee in the second quarter of the second game? That injury altered the big-picture quarterback plans the Bears had coming into the season, ultimately shifting rookie Justin Fields into the starting role for 10 of the next 12 games. The Bears went 2-8 in the games Fields started. And while Fields gained valuable experience during a season in which the Bears probably weren’t going to be championship contenders to begin with, Dalton can’t be blamed for wondering whether he could have lifted this team beyond the expectations of so many outsiders.

Had it not been for that unfortunate injury …

“I think about that all the time,” Dalton said. “It’s unfortunate how the whole injury happened (with me) not really getting touched. Things shifted from that point forward. So I do think about that. But I do understand that everything happens for a reason and I trust in God’s plan over mine. I may not understand why it happened or when it happened and all that. But I know I can trust that there’s good that has come from it. And there has been a lot of growth for me as a person and as a player since.”

Dalton, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Bears in March, will get one final start Sunday, pushed back into action after Fields tested positive for COVID-19 in the middle of the week. The Bears are 3-2 in games Dalton has started.

At the end of what he called “an up and down” season, Dalton would love to put some positive finishing touches on things by lifting the offense against a strong Vikings defense.

For whatever it’s worth, Dalton took the razor to his beard this week.

“New year, new look,” he said. “Starting fresh.”

3. Keep an eye on …

Jaylon Johnson versus Justin Jefferson.

Three weeks ago, Johnson was really looking forward to a matchup against the Vikings star receiver, dialing in on his preparation and eager to do his part to help contain Jefferson. Then, a day before the game, Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn’t play.

“I missed (that game) a lot,” Johnson said Thursday, “considering the preparation I put in that week — going through watching film, practicing, seeing certain things. Having that taken away from me at the last minute was pretty hurtful. I wanted that matchup. That was something I’d been looking forward to.”

Sunday presents another opportunity. Jefferson is second in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,509. He has 103 catches, too, including nine touchdowns.

Jefferson hauled in an early 12-yard touchdown catch from Kirk Cousins at Soldier Field in Week 15 but was otherwise held in check by a Bears defense that was missing all five of its usual starters in the secondary. He finished with four catches for 47 yards.

Johnson wants his crack at Jefferson, looking to finish a strong second season on a high note.

“This week is no different,” he said. “Just going out preparing the right way. Watching film. My preparation will take care of itself.”

Johnson said he is looking forward to decompressing after Sunday and going through a thorough self-evaluation process of his 2021 season. What is undeniable is that he remains uber-confident in his skill set, has developed confidence in his preparation routine and has channeled both those things into becoming a respected leader on defense.

“I want to be better, so I want those around me to be better,” Johnson said. “I want to bring guys along the best way I can, even have guys push me to be the best version of myself. I’m big on everybody being on the same page and pushing each other to be better.”

4. Odds and ends

With their secondary depleted so significantly three weeks ago, the Bears still somehow managed to hold the Vikings to just 61 net passing yards, the lowest output of the Mike Zimmer era. A week later, the Bears defense held the Seattle Seahawks scoreless in the fourth quarter to help spark a rally for a 25-24 win. Then, in Week 17, the Bears put together arguably their most complete defensive effort of the season in a 29-3 blowout of the New York Giants.

Yes, the degree of difficulty of that performance must be considered. But the Bears still recorded four sacks and a safety, forced four turnovers, held the Giants to 155 total yards and 13 first downs on 12 possessions and didn’t allow a single explosive play.

“It was just a total group effort,” coordinator Sean Desai said. “A lot of energy and juice from the sideline and from the players on the field. And really just great execution of the plan and the techniques and the details of what we were trying to get done. When we do that, we can be pretty special. And that was a special performance.”

Desai was asked to interpret the strong finishing stretch by his unit and what it has told him.

“It just tells us the character of our guys and the character of our coaches that we have over here,” he said. “Our mentality on defense has always been a 1-0 approach. We’re not changing that.”

Added outside linebacker Robert Quinn: “We’re finally playing up to our standards. We’ve been inconsistent on the year. And we put ourselves in a terrible position. But as a man, as people with pride, we have to finish strong and give ourselves something positive going into next year.”

5. Injury updates

Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks is the only Bears player who was declared out Friday on the official injury report for the finale. Hicks has been battling an ankle injury since November, and Sunday will mark the eighth game he has missed this season and the 20th over the last three seasons.

Robert Quinn (shoulder), Eddie Goldman (finger) and Duke Shelley (heel) were listed as questionable, but all three practiced in full Friday and figure to play.

The Bears on Saturday elevated wide receiver Dazz Newsome from the practice squad. The 2021 sixth-round pick has played in two games.

For the Vikings, defensive tackle Michael Pierce (illness) is doubtful while Mackensie Alexander (ankle), Kris Boyd (ribs) and Wyatt Davis (illness) are questionable.


Brad Biggs (13-3)

The Vikings fell out of the playoff race with a dispirited 37-10 road loss to the Green Bay Packers last week. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and Bears counterpart Matt Nagy are likely entering their final game before receiving pink slips. The Vikings are destined to finish in second place in the NFC North even if the Bears win and both teams finish with 7-10 records. So there’s really nothing at stake at US Bank Stadium. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who returns after missing last week on the reserve/COVID-19 list, has had rough times against the Bears but has been steady against them in Minnesota. Figure that will give the Vikings a slight edge as the Bears bid to end the season with a three-game winning streak.

<mark class=”hl_purple”>Vikings 20, Bears 17</mark>

Colleen Kane (14-2)

The last time the Bears and Vikings met — a 17-9 Vikings win in Week 15 — the Bears were missing 14 players with COVID-19. Justin Fields played injured. And the Bears made several costly mistakes. Now the teams meet in a game without playoff implications. The Bears have been resigned to that fate for weeks and still won the last two games behind Nick Foles and Andy Dalton. So I’m going to guess the Bears and Matt Nagy have the motivation for one more win left in them.

<mark class=”hl_orange”>Bears 20, Vikings 17</mark>

Dan Wiederer (15-1)

Neither team will be playing in the postseason. Both teams could be facing significant changes to their coaching staffs and front offices once the game ends. The level of frustration surrounding each organization is similar. Still, the Vikings remain just a smidge better overall. And so this is how it will end.

<mark class=”hl_purple”>Vikings 26, Bears 24</mark>

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