On Sunday afternoon as the game clock struck zero, the 2019 Chicago Bears’ season ended the same way it began – with a heartbreaking loss to the division-rival Packers.
Sitting at 7-6 prior to their Week 15 matchup, their only realistic path to the playoffs lied within a flawless 3-0 finish, having to defeat some of the league’s top teams in Green Bay, Kansas City and Minnesota to sneak into one of the Wild Card spots. However, their unlikely run came to an end in the first of these tests, again falling to the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers, 13-21.
Coming into this matchup, hopes were high surrounding the Monsters of the Midway on the heels of a three-game winning streak and with the long-anticipated return of star defensive end Akiem Hicks. After the 2018 Pro Bowler left Week 5’s contest against the Raiders with a dislocated elbow that would land him on Injured Reserve, this would prove to be a hammer blow to this team as a player widely recognized as one of the league’s top run stuffers.
Last season with Hicks on the field, Chicago boasted the No. 1 run defense in the league, allowing just 80 rushing yards per game and five total rushing touchdowns (both best in the NFL). In 2019, where Hicks has missed a total of nine contests, the Bears have surrendered 96.6 yards per game. While this mark still ranks in the top-six, an area where Hicks’ absence has hurt them is in the red zone. Through 14 games, this team has yielded 14 scores on the ground, tied for sixth-most in the league.
However, it’s not just his hole-plugging prowess that they’ve missed, but his impact as a pass-rusher as well. In 2018, the Bears placed third in football with 50 sacks as a team. This season – only 31 (23rd in the NFL). Safe to say, all of Chicago welcomed Hicks back with open arms.
His presence was immediately felt in this one, gathering four tackles and two quarterback hits.
Although Packers’ running back Aaron Jones reached paydirt twice, Chicago managed to hold him to just 51 rushing yards (21 of which came on one play) fresh off a 134-yard performance in Week 14. As a whole, the Bears limited Green Bay’s RB-tandem of Jones and Jamaal Williams to 3.6 yards per carry.
As this still proved to be not enough, it was clear that Hicks was playing at nowhere near 100 percent. On two separate occasions, he exited the game with his brace-protected left arm in obvious discomfort. After hitting the medical tent for the second time, it was unclear if he’d be able to keep going.
“It’s my elbow.” pic.twitter.com/9LLLlvZbnX
— Brian Sandalow (@BrianSandalow) December 15, 2019
To the disbelief of many, he kept pushing through – and was a big reason the Bears nearly completed an improbable comeback as the defense held the Packers’ offense to negative-four yards in the fourth quarter without a single first down.
If there’s one takeaway from Hicks’ performance on Sunday, it’s that he’s an absolute warrior.
“I’ve been saying that Akiem is the juice, man,” Prince Amukamara told NBC Sports Chicago. “He brings the juice to this team. His leadership on the field and off the field. You can even see him and Eddie have a thing where they just feed off each other. We appreciate him coming back.”
While the Bears were ultimately defeated, what Hicks did was brought back a much-needed spark to Chuck Pagano’s unit as a vocal locker-room leader – even if it was for just one game.
With the Bears now officially eliminated from contention following the Minnesota Vikings’ 29-point route of the L.A. Chargers, it’s a likely outcome that Hicks is shut down for the season. Now entering the latter portion of his career at 30 years old, it’d be foolish for the organization to take any unwarranted risk by allowing him to continue suiting up.
Although, it’s obvious that if it were his own decision, he’d be out there with his guys. That, alone, should give fans reassurance that GM Ryan Pace has chosen the ideal franchise cornerstone piece to build around heading into 2020.