The Chicago Bears on Sunday officially became the ninth team in 10 seasons to go from worst to first and win their division just one year after finishing in last place. It was a monumental turnaround for a team that posted four consecutive seasons with double-digit losses from 2014 to 2017. In January, the Bears will host a home playoff game for the first time since the 2011 postseason, which ended with Caleb Hanie futilely trying to lead the Bears to a comeback victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
The Bears had beaten a healthy Rodgers only once in 11 tries over the ensuing seven seasons before Sunday, when they held the future Hall of Famer to a 68.9 passer rating in a 24-17 victory. The 10-4 Bears were given 8-1 odds to win the division before the season, and the Raiders reportedly chose to trade Khalil Mack to the Bears (and not the 49ers) because they wanted to acquire selections from a team that was likely to be picking toward the top of the draft. Oops.
Naturally, it's going to be tough for the Bears to stay atop the mountain. The NFC North has had a repeat winner only seven times in 17 seasons under the current four-team format, and those worst-to-first teams have struggled to sustain their pace. Barring an unlikely run to the playoffs by this year's Eagles, the last team to go worst to first and make it back to the playoffs the following year was the 2011-2012 Broncos, who were able to replace Tim Tebow with Peyton Manning.
Can the Bears and some of 2018's other surprise teams and players keep it up in 2019? And is there an obvious candidate to follow in their footsteps next season? Let's run through them, starting with the newly crowned division champs:
The Bears didn't exactly come out of nowhere, of course. When I wrote about the Rams and their own massive turnaround this time last season, I identified the Bears as the most likely team to go worst to first this season. In July, I wrote about how advanced metrics suggested the Bears were one of the six most likely teams to improve in 2018.
All of that was before Sept. 2, when the Bears made one of the highest-profile additions of the offseason in Mack. You know what happened next. Mack has more sacks than the entire Raiders team combined despite missing two games. The Bears will be without their first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, but they're not regretting the Mack deal anytime soon.
Will they do it again in 2019?
Chicago can make the playoffs again in 2019, but the formula will probably have to change, at least subtly. The most reasonable comp for the 2018 Bears is the 2017 Jaguars. Both teams made similar leaps in defensive DVOA; the 2016-2017 Jaguars improved from 12th to first in defensive DVOA, while the 2017-2018 Bears leaped from 14th to the top of the DVOA charts heading into Week 15. The Jags' pass rush was buoyed by the offseason addition of veteran superstar Calais Campbell, while the Bears added Mack. Both teams fired their defensive-minded coach but retained their defensive coordinator, with the Jags firing Gus Bradley in midseason and retaining defensive coordinator Todd Wash, while the Bears fired John Fox but kept Vic Fangio.
There are two other key elements to both teams' success during their breakout seasons. The 2017 Jaguars were remarkably healthy on defense, with their 11 starting defenders combining to miss just three games all season. The 2018 Bears haven't been as remarkably fresh, but before nickel corner Bryce Callahan went down with a broken foot in Week 14, their starting 11 had missed a total of just ... three games. Callahan's injury will bring that number to six, and if Eddie Jackson sits out the final two weeks after injuring his ankle while intercepting Rodgers on Sunday, the Bears would be at eight missed games from their defenders.
It's virtually impossible to get a defense to stay that healthy year after year. What's interesting about the Jags is that they've actually pulled it off this season; While they cut starting safety Barry Church last week, their 11 starters had combined to miss a total of ... yes, three games. The Bears have veterans such as Prince Amukamara, Leonard Floyd and Danny Trevathan, who have a track record of struggling to avoid injuries. It's unlikely the Bears will stay under 10 missed games on defense in 2019.
An issue that has haunted the Jags, though, has been missing turnovers. In 2017, Jacksonville was second in the league with 33 takeaways. Jalen Ramsey & Co. forced opposing quarterbacks to throw interceptions on a league-high 4.1 percent of their passes and generated a total of 21 picks. With the same secondary and core of talent returning, fans would have expected the Jaguars to keep the takeaways coming.
They haven't. The 2018 Jaguars have picked off 2.3 percent of passes, which ranks 20th in the NFL. In Sunday's loss to Washington, they failed to intercept Josh Johnson once in 25 tries. The Jags have recovered just four of the 13 fumbles they've forced on defense this year, and have just 14 takeaways in 14 games, leaving them on pace to halve their turnover figures from a year ago.
The Bears, meanwhile, have been a takeaway factory. I wrote in July that the Bears were likely to improve on their 29th-ranked 1.5 percent interception rate from 2017, and Chicago's 4.8 percent interception rate leads the league, as Jackson & Co. have forced takeaways on 20.7 percent of opposing possessions this season. No other team has topped 16.7 percent in that category. Fangio's defense has forced 35 takeaways, five more than any other team in the league.
It's not impossible for that to happen again, but it's extremely unlikely. Jackson (seven) and Kyle Fuller (six) have combined for 13 interceptions. Over the past 30 years, 270 defenders have racked up six or more interceptions in a given season. Just 32 of those players -- 11.9 percent of those defensive backs -- have managed to repeat the feat the following season. Just 27 sets of teammates have managed to pick off six or more passes in a season, and none since the Fangio-led 49ers defense did it with Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers in 2011. The 2000-2001 Buccaneers and the 2008-2009 Packers are the only defenses in the past 30 years to have two six-pick players in multiple seasons.
The Bears will still likely have a good defense again in 2019, but it probably won't be as dominant as it has been this season. Their hope, then, has to be to get more out of their offense. The Jaguars weren't able to pull this off, as Blake Bortles collapsed and Leonard Fournette wasn't able to stay healthy. Chicago has a wildly creative playcaller in Matt Nagy and an inexperienced, improving quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky; they have a better shot of staying atop the NFC North than the Jags did of keeping themselves atop the AFC South this season, although it's more likely they fall back to somewhere around 9-7.
Which team could emulate them as a surprise in 2019?
If we're looking for a middling team with a young quarterback and a solid defense that might take a leap forward in 2019, the obvious fit seems like the Cleveland Browns, who entered Week 15 ranked 10th in defensive DVOA before winning an ugly game against the Broncos on Saturday night. Cleveland will likely hire a new coach this offseason, although new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens has been working wonders with Baker Mayfield since taking over, and general manager John Dorsey will have $80 million or so of cap space with which to work. The only issue is that the Browns don't have a takeaway spike in them, given that their 30 takeaways are second in the league behind Chicago.
Of course, the Jaguars are one of the biggest surprises of this season in their own right. Even if you didn't think they were going to improve on their 10-6 mark from a year ago (which, sadly, I did), I don't think many people expected the collapse we saw from the Jaguars. After losing to Johnson and an injury-riddled Washington team on Sunday, the Jags have fallen to 4-10. They've fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, and coach Doug Marrone might follow him out the door this offseason. Bortles, who was benched months after the Jags signed him to an ill-advised extension, also seems likely to leave this offseason.
Will they do it again in 2019?
I think the Jaguars will be better, but their ceiling might be capped below their 10-6 mark from a season ago. The 2018 Jags have been a bit unlucky, as Sunday's loss took them to 2-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Marrone's team has recovered just 12 of 35 fumbles in their games, which ranks among the lowest rates in football and is unlikely to recur. The Jags' minus-12 turnover margin, the third worst in the NFL, probably will be better in 2019. They also probably won't have as many injuries on offense, where they were down to a fourth-choice tight end and left tackle at different points.
The issue is that the Jags find themselves in tough financial straits after years of big spending in free agency. Jacksonville already has more than $200 million in cap liabilities for 2019, and that's before giving Yannick Ngakoue and possibly Ramsey new extensions. The Jags can cut Bortles to free up space, but they'll probably need to part ways with at least one of their veteran defensive linemen, with Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus the most likely candidates.
The point is that Jacksonville will have a limited budget to work with in terms of looking at possible quarterback solutions. The good news is that there should be a limited market of teams going after new starters; the Jags will likely be competing with only Washington and the Giants for veteran options, although teams such as the Dolphins and Raiders also could move into the market if they move on from their incumbents at quarterback.
Assuming team president Tom Coughlin still has final say on personnel, the most likely candidate is probably a traditional pocket passer like Joe Flacco. The Ravens have suggested that they would consider trading Flacco, but it seems extremely unlikely that the former Super Bowl MVP will have much of a market on a contract with an $18.5 million base salary in 2019, let alone figures of $20.5 million and $24.3 million in the two subsequent seasons. Flacco is probably looking at something closer to the three-year, $54 million contract signed by Bortles this past offseason.
Flacco's floor is higher than Bortles', but the chances of the Jags winning 12 games with Flacco as their quarterback are relatively slim. Unless they find a way to go all-in for someone like Justin Herbert in the draft and nab a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal, Jacksonville is probably going to be somewhere in the 7-8 win range in 2019.
Which team could emulate them as a disappointment in 2019?
I don't think the Bears will fall to a 4-10 record through 15 weeks next season, even if I think their defense shares some similarities to the 2017 Jags. If I'm running through the list of likely playoff teams that might fall off and struggle to make it back to the postseason in 2018, the most plausible option would be the Dallas Cowboys, who are now 8-6 with a point differential of plus-7 after being shut out by the Colts on Sunday. The Cowboys have been better on offense with Amari Cooper, of course, but they're not going to go 6-2 in one-score games again, and they remain one of the more top-heavy rosters in the league. They also won't have a first-round pick to improve their roster after sending it to the Raiders in the Cooper swap.
Which allows us to easily transition to the next surprise: Cooper and his blistering start with the Cowboys. The Colts held the former Alabama star to four catches and 32 yards Sunday, but even with that modest day factored in, he has been dominant in a Dallas uniform.
Since joining the Cowboys for their Week 9 game against the Titans, Cooper has racked up 44 catches for 674 yards and six touchdowns. He ranks fourth in the league in receiving yards over that time frame and is tied for the league lead in touchdowns. Dak Prescott has targeted Cooper 60 times, and the 2015 fourth overall pick is bringing in 73.3 percent of the throws in his direction. The Cowboys wanted a No. 1 receiver to help develop Prescott and try to win the division, and barring an enormous collapse over the final two weeks, they're going to get exactly what they wanted.
Can he keep those numbers up in 2019?
Probably not. Prorating Cooper's performance would amount to a line of 101 catches for 1,541 yards and 14 touchdowns. No receiver managed to hit those marks in receiving yards or touchdowns last season, and they basically would lock in Cooper as a top-two receiver in the NFL this season. Cooper can hit those numbers for a few games at a time, and he's still just 24 years old, but projecting anyone to be a first-team All-Pro-caliber wideout over a full season is a dangerous game. Everything has to go right, and it's more likely that Cooper's catch rate slips or he misses a game or two because of injury.
Who could benefit from a change of scenery in 2019?
Dealing for wideouts toward the end of their rookie contracts can be dangerous; Cooper has worked out for the Cowboys, but the Bills didn't get much from Kelvin Benjamin after dealing for him under similar circumstances. Given how little there is to work with on the free-agent market, though, teams are going to take shots on wideouts making a relative pittance in the hopes of stumbling onto a contributor.
One logical option might be DeVante Parker, who was on the trading block earlier this season before delivering a six-catch, 134-yard game against the Texans just before the deadline. Since then, Parker has racked up a total of 122 yards over six games while struggling through yet another injury, this time to his shoulder. Parker is due to make $9.4 million for the fifth-year option of his rookie deal in 2019, but given the likely price tag for wideouts like Devin Funchess in free agency, Parker might seem like a more palatable lottery ticket and could dominate if he stays healthy in the right scheme.
A better candidate looms at a different position. The Raiders traded Cooper after two 1,000-yard seasons to start his career because Cooper's production sagged and his likely contract demands were deemed to be too high. The Falcons might find themselves in a similar situation with Vic Beasley Jr., who led the league with 15.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2016 but has just 10 sacks combined in 2017 and 2018.
Beasley's fifth-year option sees his salary balloon from $705,000 to $12.81 million in 2019. The Falcons might prefer to lock up Grady Jarrett this offseason and let Beasley leave for greener pastures before having to make a long-term decision on his future. This is considered to be an excellent draft for defensive linemen, but would a team in need of edge-rushing help like the Raiders or Giants prefer to trade for Beasley and take a shot on a former NFL sack champion?
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Speaking of sack champs, it was unclear what Watt had left in the tank after missing most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons to various injuries. The future Hall of Famer had racked up 69 sacks over a ridiculous four-year span from 2012 to '15, but after he missed 24 games and recorded 1.5 sacks in eight contests between 2016 and 2017, it was fair to wonder whether we were ever going to see the "real" Watt again.
Fourteen games later, we have our answer. Watt has been back to his old tricks, racking up 14.5 sacks and 24 quarterback knockdowns for a resurgent Texans defense. Even if Watt isn't quite at the Aaron Donald-esque level we saw from him during that four-year run, he's a lock to make the Pro Bowl and should be one of the runners-up for Defensive Player of the Year. Not bad for a guy who was essentially sidelined for two years.
Can he keep those numbers up in 2019?
I'd expect a slight drop-off. There are always going to be concerns about Watt's health, and while he has stayed upright this season, any projection system would give Watt a significant chance of missing meaningful time in any given season from here on out. Watt also has been lucky in terms of turning hits into sacks, given that the usual rate for pass-rushers is about 45 percent, which would put Watt at 10.8 sacks.
It's tempting to give him a superstar rate, but Watt has typically underperformed his hit rate as a pro. The Wisconsin product racked up 50 knockdowns during his last star-level season in 2015, which would peg him for an expected total of 22.5 sacks. Instead, Watt had to merely settle for a league-high 17.5 sacks. What a slacker.
Who could emerge from the injury wilderness to break out again in 2019?
The obvious candidate just made his comeback in Week 15. After tearing his Achilles in Week 1 of the 2017 season, Eric Berry sat out 15 games last year and then missed the first 13 games of 2018 with a Haglund's deformity in the heel of his other foot. The three-time first-team All-Pro made his return during the Chiefs' loss to the Chargers on Thursday night. Berry took 30 defensive snaps during the first half but subsequently sat out the entire second half, as planned before the game.
Berry might play well enough to make an impact in 2018, which would disqualify him as a Watt comparison for next year. The more plausible case is that we see the old Berry on a regular basis for the first time in 2019, which would make him a perfect comp for Watt. Another candidate here might include Chargers corner Jason Verrett, as the former Pro Bowler has played just five games since the start of 2016 after suffering various injuries.
There has arguably been no bigger surprise in football this year than Mahomes, who has emerged after a year (mostly) in waiting and is now the favorite to win league MVP. In a season reminiscent of Dan Marino's 1984 campaign, Mahomes is on pace to throw for 5,192 yards and 51 touchdowns, which would make him the second 5,000-50 quarterback in league history after Peyton Manning in 2013.
Can he keep those numbers up in 2019?
I'd hesitate to put any limitations on Mahomes, but remember that Marino set passing records as a second-year pro in '84 and never topped his totals of 5,084 yards and 48 passing touchdowns over the remainder of his career. And as we all know, if Mahomes wins MVP, virtually anything he does in 2019 short of a 16-0 season and a Super Bowl victory would be construed as a disappointing campaign.
It will be extremely difficult to keep up this level of play for another season. For one, Mahomes has thrown for touchdowns on 8.7 percent of his attempts, the fourth-highest rate since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. It's tough for anyone to keep up that sort of touchdown rate, and I would expect that a few more red zone scores will go to whomever replaces Kareem Hunt as the Chiefs' primary running back next season.
Who could emerge from the bench to post a career year in 2019?
There's no real candidate. Mahomes' first year as the full-time starter goes down with the likes of Marino in 1984 and Kurt Warner in 1999 as the best full-season debuts in NFL history, which is tough to recreate. Each of the five rookie first-round picks will see significant action in their debut seasons, while Mahomes played one meaningless game in Week 17 against the Broncos in 2017.
Mahomes is a brilliant talent, but he's in the perfect place with an incredible offensive coach. The closest comparison there would be if Drew Brees or Ben Roethlisberger retired and were replaced by Teddy Bridgewater or Joshua Dobbs, and even those comparisons are far off. Mahomes is not quite sui generis, but after Marino and Warner, he's a once-in-a-generation breakout.
Although the Super Bowl LII champions kept their postseason hopes alive with an upset victory in Los Angeles on Sunday night over the Rams, the 7-7 Eagles would need a series of breaks to go their way to sneak back into the playoffs. It has been a frustrating season for Doug Pederson and his Eagles, who have suffered through frustrating losses to the likes of the Titans, Buccaneers and twice to the Cowboys. Philly began its season without Carson Wentz and appears likely to end it without him, too, given the status of Wentz's injured back.
The Eagles have a 28.8 percent chance of making the postseason, and while they're left with a pair of winnable games against Houston and Washington, I'm not sure that the formula we saw Sunday is something Philly could sustain into a long playoff run. They were able to hold a frustrated Sean McVay to 23 points on five red zone trips, as Jared Goff struggled to hit open receivers and made naive decisions with the ball. They won the turnover battle 3-1, which is going to be tough to do week after week with Nick Foles at quarterback. Pederson seemed to struggle to get the aggressiveness balance right yet again, but the Eagles managed to pull out the game when the Rams lost one possession on a fumbled punt and were stopped in the red zone on their subsequent try.
The issue, as I've written about earlier this year, is that the 2017 Eagles might have set expectations too high. Those Eagles were hoping to get by with a patchwork set of cornerbacks, but they actually thrived. They were beaten up by injuries that would drag down a typical team, but somehow, Philly actually overcame and played its best football in the playoffs after losing Wentz and Jason Peters. Pederson wasn't just aggressive on fourth downs, but he was wildly successful when he chose to get aggressive. All of those things were likely to regress toward the mean this season.
Will they remain enigmatic in 2019?
I think they should be better than enigmatic and win the NFC East in 2019, if only because they'll likely get more Wentz. If the 2016 second overall pick doesn't return this season, Wentz will finish the year with 11 games played and 401 pass attempts. I'm not incredibly concerned about Wentz's durability yet, in part because the injuries (a torn ACL and a stress fracture in his back) are so different. Wentz's numbers declined in some unsurprising ways this season, but Wentz remains a top-10 quarterback with MVP-level upside in any given healthy campaign.
As for the team around him, it depends on how the Eagles tiptoe around a difficult cap situation. Philly already has $191 million in liabilities and would likely need to restructure veteran contracts to create room or give him an extension. The Eagles have a habit of giving out contracts to star players long before their contracts expire, as they gave Lane Johnson an extension basically as soon as legally possible after the tackle's third year in the NFL.
Could this season's Super Bowl winner take a step backward in 2019?
Absolutely, although the nature of that step depends on the team. The New Orleans Saints are ESPN's Super Bowl favorites, and indeed, they could very well either see Brees retire or age. A defense that looked lost for a good chunk of the first half could get lost again. The Kansas City Chiefs are getting career years out of pass-rushers Dee Ford and Chris Jones, and aren't likely to get as effective of a season from Mahomes in Year 3. The New England Patriots could be without a retired Rob Gronkowski. The Los Angeles Rams' offensive line could slip. You get the picture: Every team is going to look much better in the glow of a Super Bowl win than it does the following morning. The Eagles are no exception.