LAKE FOREST – Coach Matt Nagy is saving the big celebrations for later.
He opted instead to spend “quality time” at home with his four sons, ate sushi, consumed “one beverage” and kept his eyes on the prizes still out there after the Chicago Bears clinched the NFC North.
One he would love, though it probably won’t come gift-wrapped: a first-round bye.
“You wanna ask me if I want the first-round bye, or the No. 1 seed? Absolutely, give it to me right now,” he said.
The Bears completed their worst-to-first turnaround by securing their first division title and playoff appearance in eight years.
Even better, they did it by beating Aaron Rodgers and the rival Green Bay Packers on Sunday. But if they’re going to land a top-two seed and first-round bye, they still have some climbing to do.
The Bears are third in the NFC behind the South champion New Orleans Saints and West champion Los Angeles Rams with two games to play. They visit San Francisco this week before closing the regular season at Minnesota.
“It’s OK to celebrate and enjoy last night and yesterday,” Nagy said on Monday. “But we have bigger things that we’re trying to achieve. And I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for us where we’re at is understanding, OK, we accomplished a good goal, but that’s not enough.”
The Bears (10-4) simply need a strong finish and some help to catch New Orleans, which entered Monday’s game against Carolina leading the NFC at 11-2. The same goes for the Rams (11-3), though the Bears helped themselves by beating Los Angeles on Dec. 9. Chicago is also two games up on NFC East leader Dallas.
“There’s the ability for us to be, basically, four different seeds,” Nagy said. “Some are slimmer than others. But take that into account, it makes it easy. You go play, and you play to win and nothing changes. You literally control what you can control.”
The way things play out this week could determine whether Nagy keeps his foot on the gas or rests players – particularly those who are banged up – when the Bears visit Minnesota. But if seeds are at stake heading into the regular-season finale, he likely will go full speed.
“Unless you’re locked in and you can’t move, then you have to decide,” Nagy said. “To me that’s when you have to decide what you want to do. But right now, we have to win.”
Simply being in this position is a welcomed change for Chicago.
The drought between playoff appearances claimed three coaches and led to shrinking crowds at Soldier Field.
“This was for the fans, this was for the organization and we are glad that we were able to do it,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said.
With the Bears winning the North, at least one NFL team in 15 of the past 16 seasons has finished in first place in its division the season after finishing last or tied for last place.
Nagy is Chicago’s first rookie coach with 10 wins since George Halas in 1920, when the franchise was in its inaugural season. With a 7-1 record at Soldier Field, Chicago matched its home win total over three seasons under former coach John Fox.
But as good as that all sounds, the Bears want more.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” star pass rusher Khalil Mack said. “We just got the NFC North. We got that title so far. We want to get this push. We can’t really get caught up in all of that. We have two more games we have to win.”
Notes: Though both players were still being evaluated, Nagy said he doesn’t think the injuries to S Eddie Jackson (sprained right ankle) and LB Aaron Lynch (elbow) are season-ending.
Jackson picked off a tipped pass intended for Jimmy Graham at the goal line late in Sunday’s game, then had to be helped off the field when his leg bent awkwardly as he tried to slide on the return. That play also ended Aaron Rodgers’ NFL-record streak of 402 attempts without an interception. Lynch walked off the field clutching his right arm after he was hurt fighting a block on a run by Jamaal Williams in the third quarter.