Playoffs? Chicago Bears, now 5-1, emerge as serious postseason contenders

The Chicago Bears need to be taken seriously.

Look, Chicago has flaws -- plenty of them. The overall offense, not good enough. The rushing offense, not nearly good enough. The offensive line, yikes. The quarterback play, inconsistent.

What cannot be disputed is the club's record after six games. Following Sunday's 23-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers, the Bears are 5-1 for the first time since former coach Lovie Smith's final season in 2012.

Entering this season, there were 102 teams that started 5-1 since the NFL went to 12 playoff teams in 1990, and 85 went on to make the playoffs (83.3%), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Ironically, the Bears ended up missing the playoffs despite their hot start in 2012, but the NFL expanded the playoff field to 14 teams for 2020.

Add it all up; the Bears are in prime position to challenge for their second playoff berth in three years under coach Matt Nagy. For all the grief Nagy takes about the offense (much of it justified), the Bears are 25-14 (including playoffs) since he took over.

For comparison's sake, the Bears are light-years ahead of where they used to be. Former coach John Fox won 14 games in three years, and Marc Trestman went 13-19 before the Bears fired him in 2014.

Chicago's schedule turns tougher in Week 7 with a Monday night road game against the Los Angeles Rams. November presents even stiffer challenges with matchups versus New Orleans, Tennessee and Green Bay.

By virtue of winning five of their first six, the Bears have built a cushion where they can absorb some losses later in the season and still be OK.

You don't have to love the Bears. You just have to respect them.

QB breakdown: Nick Foles played solid, not spectacular football. Foles finished 23-of-39 for 198 yards, one touchdown, one interception and one rushing touchdown. Foles sometimes makes bad decisions. The veteran quarterback floated a terrible pass into tight coverage that Carolina easily intercepted in a key moment. Usually, Foles is smart with the football. The 31-year-old sees the field well and understands where receivers are supposed to be, and a testament to that is seven different Bears caught passes on Sunday. The Bears trust Foles. That's unlikely to change any time soon -- even though the offense leaves a lot to be desired.

Pivotal play: The Panthers appeared on the verge of tying the game late in the second quarter after officials whistled Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks for a neutral zone infraction on fourth down. The penalty gave Carolina first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, but the Bears' defense slammed the door shut. Pro Bowl cornerback Kyle Fuller made a touchdown-saving open-field tackle on Teddy Bridgewater on second down, and on the next play, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano dialed up the blitz with linebacker Roquan Smith that forced an errant Bridgewater throw to D.J. Moore. The Panthers had to settle for another field goal and, in the process, squandered the chance to get momentum back on their side.

Kicker controversy? Last year's feel-good story, kicker Eddy Pineiro (injured reserve/groin), might need to look for a new home. Veteran kicker Cairo Santos has filled in admirably for Pineiro, who has been sidelined with a groin injury since the summer. Pineiro made 23 of 28 field goal attempts in 2019, but that feels like ancient history. Santos has been just as good if not better. Santos booted a career-long 55-yard field goal on Sunday. Through six games, Santos is 10-of-12 on field goals, including the game winner vs. Tampa in Week 5. Santos' history with Nagy -- dating back to their time together in Kansas City -- only helps the kicker's cause.

Encouraging trend: The Bears have tight ends who can actually play. Last season, Chicago tight ends combined for two touchdown receptions, tied with the New England Patriots for fewest in the NFL. Chicago overhauled the position in the offseason when it signed veterans Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris in free agency and drafted Cole Kmet in the second round out of Notre Dame. The moves have paid dividends. Bears tight ends have already made five touchdown receptions thus far in 2020. The latest occurred on Sunday when Kmet made a difficult 9-yard touchdown grab (in traffic) for the first score of the game. Kmet and Graham combined for seven receptions on the afternoon.