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Bears Hit Huge Fork in the Road

Analysis: Why Sunday's game is the one which could be the key in finally swinging a decision by Matt Nagy to start Justin Fields

Bears coach Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterback Andy Dalton have spoken positively about the way the offense performed against the Los Angeles Rams.

They can point to how they piled up 24 first downs.

They can point to their seven straight drives into Los Angeles territory, and did.

"I thought we moved the ball really well," Dalton said. "When you look at what we were able to do, we had longer drives."

Two numbers indicate failure and the first is 14, their meager point total. They had 14 points to show for 69 plays of offense.

The other number is 4.7. That's the number of yards per play by the Bears. The Rams averaged 7.7 yards.

To coin a phrase, the Bears brought a knife to a gunfight. They came equipped only to gain in small increments and the Rams came to play big-time football. It's the same way the Bears played their playoff loss to the Saints last year, except for one dropped pass on a flea-flicker play, and the way they played against the Packers in the regular -season finale.

This is all fine when facing downtrodden teams at the end of a season like the Bears played last year during a late three-game winning streak. It doesn't say much for progress when a team can only beat this type of opponent.

The Bears have lost three straight games on the field against stronger opponents. In fact, under Nagy the only winning teams they've beaten since they beat the Los Angeles Rams at Soldier Field in 2018 were the eventual world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year and the 2019 Minnesota Vikings twice. 

Beating Minnesota twice that year shouldn't even count because Nagy has owned the Vikings, 5-1 in head-to-head matchups. The only road game against a winning team that the Bears have won under Nagy is the final game of 2019 when Mike Zimmer pulled all his starters.

The Bears can talk about how they don't turn the ball over and play good defense, but when their defense caves in like it did in the opener, or when another team has a strong defense, there is no way to compete. They can't produce big plays.

Dalton was on the field for 64 offensive plays and produced 7 points. That's .109 points for every play.

Fields was quarterback for five plays and produced seven points. That's 1.4 points per play, which is quite a bit more than Dalton managed.

The Bears were near the goal line another time after Fields' first career pass completion gave them third-and-1 at the 3-yard line, and Dalton threw a tipped interception in the end zone following a false start on Cole Kmet.

'When the ball gets tipped, things happen," Dalton said. "Guys react differently. It was unfortunate that it got tipped. It makes things look out of whack."

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It still didn't look like it could have been a completion from where Darnell Mooney stood and where the ball was headed, but none of this matters. What mattered was Fields' 1.4 points per play and Dalton's .109 points per play.

At some point, Nagy needs to decide it's time to take the restrictor plate off of his offense and let it go. He needs to risk those turnovers and the wild ride teams have with a rookie quarterback.

Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals lets Dalton go against a team he beat 30-7 on the road with Dallas last year. He took a losing Dallas team and routed his old team in Cincinnati.

It should be a chance for Dalton to really show what he can do.

However, this game could also represent the biggest one for the Bears in terms of when Fields should finally start. In fact, this could be the turning point for when Fields becomes starter or an indicator.

If the Bears lose this game, they then go into Cleveland next week at 0-2 and probably 0-3. Being 0-3 is a serious matter for a coach coming off two straight .500 seasons, in his fourth year.

An 0-3 start would be disaster and it would be very difficult to imagine the Bears coming to Soldier Field on Oct. 3 with that record and with Dalton still in the starting lineup.

The fourth game was the projected possible starting date for Fields by many who looked at the schedule prior to the season.

For this reason, there will be plenty of Bears fans who won't be totally disgusted if they lose to an improved Bengals team. There will even be some misguided ones pulling for them to lose. 

Or would this be misguided?

Beating Cincinnati could only delay the inevitable. Losing to the Bengals can ensure the big day arrives because the Bears can't go into Cleveland and win next week, anyway.

They've already proven repeatedly under Nagy that they can't beat a good team on the road. And they can't expect the Browns to pull their starters.

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven