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10 Bears Takes: Another blown lead, the catch that should have been, and the vanishing playoff “hopes”

In the most Chicago Bears way possible, the team blew another commanding fourth quarter lead on a cold, wet day in Cleveland. Despite controlling the majority of the game, the Bears once again proved why “close” isn’t close enough. We’ll dive into all of the happenings of Sunday, including where the Bears’ playoff hopes stand and why Week 15 was not a great one for their hopes of landing the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Playoffs? Maybe next year... Running the table was the only option remaining over the season’s final four games, and that is now out the window. All of that despite going into the fourth quarter with another 10-point lead. Simply put, the Chicago Bears have not figured out how to consistently finish football games, and it cost them any shot at the post-season in a down year for the NFC.

All in all, the Bears played well on Sunday. It was a cold, wet day in Cleveland, but Chicago led most of the game. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find a way to hold on against a better team. It seems like no matter how much things appear to be headed in the right direction, they cannot find a way to get over the hump. While the loss is disappointing at the moment, it provides fans with a clear set of expectations over their final three games. We’ll dive into all of the happenings of Week 15 and more in the latest installment of 10 Bears Takes.

1. The Bears would have needed to run the table for a shot at a Wild Card spot, but that came to a quick end on Sunday afternoon.

Because of most tie-breaking scenarios, the Bears found themselves in a situation where they needed everything to break “right” to make the playoffs this season. The first part of that plan was to win out. If they could do that, it would have come down to being a game better than most teams remaining in contention, including the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Los Angeles Rams. While none matters now, they received plenty of help in Week 15.

Chicago making the playoffs in 2023 was always unlikely. Even coming into the season, they would have taken many breaks for them to sneak in. Despite blowing a pair of 10+ point leads earlier in the season, they still had a chance, and that’s all anyone could ask for. Unfortunately, those hopes are all but dead, and this team remains in a limbo that remains unsolved with three games left in the regular season.

Despite the cloudy future with the coaching staff and at the quarterback position, this team’s future does seem bright. The defense has rounded into form, and the offense has plenty of pieces in place. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where this team is in the playoff chase with a better coaching staff and a few more offensive weapons.

2. Many of us may have bought into this team being “close” for the last week, but Sunday was yet another example of why they aren’t close enough. Black Monday is coming, and head coach Matt Eberflus’ path to job security just took another hit.

It all started before the team’s Week 13 bye week. Despite an ugly game and back-to-back fourth-quarter turnovers, the Bears overcame many trends and beat the Minnesota Vikings. It took an impressive game-winning drive to get into field goal range. Following the bye, Chicago came out and handled the NFC North-lead Detroit Lions in a 28-13 victory last Sunday. They dominated the second half and made plays in the final quarter to win the game. It appeared that this team had turned the corner.

Heading into Sunday’s game, there was a sense of confidence. They had finally won back-to-back games and appeared to be putting it all together. For the majority of the opening three quarters, the Bears appeared in control. They took a 10-point lead to the fourth quarter and had multiple chances to put the game away. Yet, a muffed punt and a failed fourth and short attempt stopped them. Two defensive drives later, the Browns tied the game at 17. After a quick three and out, The Browns converted a big third and 15 from mid-field, which put them in position for the game-winning field goal. It left Chicago with 32 seconds to march down the field for a game-tying field goal. Despite some early success, it came down to a 3rd and ten hail mary situation. Justin Fields’ throw was about as good as anyone could ask for. He gave multiple pass catchers a chance at the ball. For a split second, things appeared to continue going the Bears’ way. The pass deflected into the air, right into Darnell Mooney’s hands. The issue? Despite appearing to have corralled the catch, it got away from him, as he kicked it in the air for the final interception of the game.

Directly after the play, I couldn’t help but think, “That was the most Bears way to lose a game.” The fact that many continue to feel the same should say something. They are “close” because they take leads into the fourth quarter. Sure, they keep games close and leave everyone feeling like they should have won more games. Even so, they aren’t winning those games, which continues to be an issue. Last week, I wrote that a strong finish could save Eberflus’ job. While that could still be true, making a solid case for this coaching staff is challenging. I won’t make any grand proclamations with just three games remaining in the season. Their remaining three games are all winnable. So was Sunday, as were multiple other games they’ve blown in the fourth quarter this year.

Through 14 games, Chicago has blown three different 10+ fourth quarter leads. That tied for the most in any single season in NFL history. In those three losses, they’ve been outscored 47-6 in the final quarter of those games. The only true identity this team has shown to have is to expect the unexpected. I’m unsure whether there will be enough left to the imagination to justify running this back for another year.

3. The internal battle of Bears fans debating between Justin Fields and drafting a quarterback has reached toxic levels.

The offense isn’t clicking. I think that’s simple enough to say at this point, right? Depending on which fan(s) you talk to, it’s either the offensive coordinator’s or the quarterback’s fault. It’s easy to see why Fields has resonated so well with a large portion of this fanbase. He’s an athletic freak that can do some incredible things. His motor is unquestioned, and his leadership couldn’t be much better.

Sure, the third-year quarterback has steadily improved all three years since coming into the league. Yet, they continue to lose games. Now, don’t get me wrong. Wins are not a quarterback stat, and Fields was put into a bad situation that hasn’t improved as much as it should. With that being said, the decision Poles will face this off-season is far more complicated than what most have made it.

If the Bears decide to move forward with Fields, they must extend the fifth-year option by May next year. It’s more than affordable at a projected $21.978 million, but it also signifies an additional two-year commitment. One could also argue that sticking with Fields beyond 2023 would require a contract extension at some point, too. The fifth-year option is the easy part. A contract extension gets a little trickier, but the biggest question with keeping Fields revolves around the year-end decision on this coaching staff.

Even if they keep Eberflus but find a new offensive coordinator, you’re talking about a fourth-year quarterback going on his third NFL offense. Would forcing Fields on interested candidates be an intelligent move in the more likely scenario of hiring a new head coach? If Ben Johnson (for example) interviews for the job and says he wants Fields, sure, it makes plenty of sense. But what happens if Johnson (and any other hot candidate) comes in and wants to reset the clock at quarterback and go with the hot name in the draft? Does it make sense to eliminate those candidates purely based on their evaluation of Fields?

I won’t sit here and pretend to have all of the answers. I’ve always felt like the most likely scenario for Fields’s return was with the coaching staff returning. The fit between Fields and the current offensive coordinator is untenable, but we’ll discuss that later. All options are on the table, but the scenarios in which Fields returns are shrinking. Does that mean it’ll end up being the correct choice? Absolutely not. But the leash of young quarterbacks in the modern NFL is not long. The Bears are likely to find themselves in the uncommon situation where they have a young, improving quarterback but also hold a Top 2 pick where one of the draft’s top quarterbacks will be sitting there for the taking.

All of this is to say that there needs to be room for nuance regarding the future of the quarterback situation in Chicago. Understandably, some have an attachment to Fields. It’s also justifiable for fans to believe that Fields can still be “saved” in the right situation. With that in mind, it’s also understandable for fans to want a clean break if they end up with a top pick in the draft. Sure, trading No. 1 or 2 overall would fetch an outstanding return to help build around Fields. But taking the next big thing at quarterback could also help turn this franchise around quicker than any other decision. We’ve got three games left in the season. I will enjoy them and let the off-season sort itself out when it gets to that point. The Bears have the NFL world at their fingertips and plenty of resources to realize serious improvement in 2024. Many essential decisions remain before a genuine conversation about the quarterback can hold water. Let’s all get along and respect each other’s opinions until then!

NFL: Preseason-Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

4. Regardless of what happens with Eberflus in three weeks, I think we can all agree that the marriage between offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and quarterback Justin Fields cannot continue.

I’m still not convinced Getsy or Fields will be here in 2024, but we’ve seen enough that they will not successfully work together. Getsy’s playcalling continues to baffle me. He’s trying to get cute in short-yardage situations if he’s not going screen-heavy. If he’s not running the ball on first down, he’s leaving his passing game out to dry on third down. Simply put, this offense has struggled against any Top 10 defense they have faced this year, and it’s a problem. Chicago’s offense had just 12 first downs in 14 drives on Sunday. Their lone offensive touchdown came from an Eddie Jackson interception, where he was called down just short of the endzone at the 1 yard line.

It has seemed clear for a while that he does not trust his quarterback. Instead of allowing Fields to play to his strengths, he’s trying to run his offense like he has Aaron Rodgers under center. At this point, I’m not sure who is more to blame. Does Fields’ tendency to hold the ball too long impact Getsy’s play-calling on early downs? Is Getsy’s inability to trust Fields as a passer limiting his young quarterback? It’s been 31 games, and I’m still not convinced we’re any closer to having answers than in the preseason last year.

Here’s what I will say: I’d trust Fields to figure it out with a new offensive mind more than I would trust Getsy to figure it out with another quarterback. Either way, this is not a marriage that is built to last. Again, I’m still not convinced either man will be here when the regular season kicks off next year. Offensive changes should be coming, regardless of who the head coach is in 2024.

5. 2023 has been yet another tough year for soon-to-be free agent wide receiver Darnell Mooney. On the final play of the game, he had a chance to make his mark and once again failed to do so in the end zone.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to believe that Mooney was once the team’s leading receiver in 2021. Not only did he eclipse 1,000 yards that season, but he appeared to be a budding superstar. Since then, he has yet to surpass his 81 catches for 1,055 yards and four-touchdown career year over his last two seasons combined. Injuries cut his season short in 2022, but this year has been a complete letdown, with just 29 catches for 409 yards and a touchdown.

Mooney is a pending free agent in three games. At one point, he appeared to be a $15 million-per-year player. Now, he looks like a one-year prove-it-deal player who will be lucky to see more than $5-6 million on his next deal.

Sunday’s performance appears to be another step in the wrong direction. Not only did he fail to catch the game-winning Hail Mary, but he had just two catches for 14 yards on a whopping eight targets. The impact isn’t there in an offense that has craved a secondary target to DJ Moore. The situation is unfortunate for both sides, but it has become increasingly likely that the 26-year-old will play football elsewhere in 2024.

6. The addition of Montez Sweat is already reaching Khalil Mack levels. More on why the former Washington Commander seems to be the one missing piece on the defensive side of the ball. This group is not far off from being one of the better units in the league.

At the time of trade, it was easy to criticize or question what general manager Ryan Poles was thinking. The logic for a deal made sense, even if the Bears were one of the worst teams in the league. We see plenty of potential free agents fail to hit the market each year for various reasons. Still, giving up a (projected) high second-round pick for the rights to negotiate an extension with a pending free agent is a risky proposition.

Through six games, the trade looks like a steal. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that Sweat is the same caliber of player that Mack is, but so far, his impact has been as noticeable in a small sample size. Since the trade, Sweat has nine quarterback hits, six sacks (involved in nine sacks), two batted passes, and a forced fumble. As a defense, Chicago has flipped the script. They’re now leading the league with 18 interceptions. Twelve of those have come with Sweat in the fold. They’ve also doubled their sack total (15 in six games).

Some pieces are there, but plenty of room for improvement remains. A marquee three-technique and another edge rusher could further help this group. Regardless of who is calling this unit next season, there’s plenty of reason for optimism, and a lot of that is because of Sweat and what he’s been able to do for this defense since arriving in Week 10.

7. Hats off to receiver DJ Moore for gutting it out on Sunday when he very clearly wasn’t close to 100%.

Moore spent most of the week limited in practice, trying to get right for Sunday’s game. It didn’t take long to see that Moore was far from himself. Fields took a deep shot to Moore on the right sideline on the opening play for the Bears offense. The ball wasn’t placed well, and the 26-year-old couldn’t come up with it. It took him a while to get up, and he sat out the next two plays of the team’s three-and-out drive.

That ended up being a common occurrence throughout the day.

Moore would play a few snaps and sit out a couple. Pain management was a big reason, but he wasn’t nearly as effective as usual. Still, he finished the game as the team’s leading receiver with four catches for 52 yards. Although he didn’t find the end zone, he was still Fields’ most reliable target. Another week of maintenance will do him well, but Moore once again showed why his value stretches far beyond his numbers.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

8. Post-Week 15 draft position recap: The Carolina Panthers win their second game of the year, tightening the race for No. 1 overall with three games remaining in the NFL regular season.

Current Draft Order Via Tankathon.com

All in all, it was not a good week for the Bears. Not only did they blow their slim chance at a playoff run, but the Panthers outlasted an Atlanta Falcons team that has shown no offensive consistency from week to week. Carolina was outplayed, but a late-game interception for Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder helped the Panthers grind down the clock and kick their second game-winning field goal of the season.

The good news: Carolina still holds a one-game lead for the No. 1 overall pick at (2-12). It’ll take at least two wins to play themselves out of a Top 2 pick (thanks to the Arizona Cardinals’ muscular strength of schedule), so the Bears are still in good shape. My hunch is that the New England Patriots (3-11) will win another game. They are playing considerably better football and still have winnable contests against the Denver Broncos (7-7) next weekend and a Week 18 matchup at home against the struggling New York Jets (5-9) that will likely still be without Rodgers.

Regarding the Bears, they would still hold the No. 5 overall pick if the season ended today. I still think it’s likely that they’ll win at least one more game down the stretch, but they should still land in the Top 10, even if they do. How high their pick ends up will rely on how many games they can “steal” over their final three.

9. NFC North Lookaround: The Detroit Lions get back on track while the rest of the NFC North take losses.

If the season ended in Week 15, the Vikings would be the sixth seed for the playoffs. The problem? They are on their third quarterback of the year, and it’s hard to imagine them winning more than another game or two down the stretch. Even so, it would require the runner-up in the NFC South or the Seattle Seahawks to get on a run for them to miss the playoffs.

Two weeks ago, the Packers were in prime position to slide into a Wild Card spot. Two weeks later, they are on the outside looking in. Luckily, their final three games are all winnable. They’ll start heading to Carolina to face the Panthers, then to Minnesota for a matchup against the Vikings, before finishing off the season at home against the Bears. There’s still a viable path for the Packers to sneak into the playoffs, but these two losses have not helped their chances.

The Lions are one win away from clinching their first-ever NFC North title. It’s been a long time coming, and if Saturday was any indication, they’ll be able to cruise into the playoffs with some confidence after their 42-17 victory against the Denver Broncos on Saturday night.

Chicago had a chance to slide into a tie for third place and be one game behind the Vikings, but with that opportunity out the window, a finish in the cellar appears to be the most likely scenario to wrap up the 2023 NFL regular season.

10. Week 16 look ahead: The (3-11) Arizona Cardinals, who are starting to play better football.

Don’t let that 45-29 score on the road against the NFC-best San Francisco 49ers fool you. Arizona has been playing much better football with Kyler Murray under center. Their offense scores points and their defense is flying around, albeit not making enough stops. Much like the 2022 Bears, this team appears to be on the rise with a new coaching staff.

I expect a higher-scoring game on Sunday. Chicago should have the edge, especially at home, but this will differ from the walk in the park that some had assumed when the schedule was released in May.

In many ways, this is a big game for the Bears. Not only would I classify this as a “must-win” game for this coaching staff, but a loss would further cement the likelihood of the Bears landing a Top 2 pick. Again, Chicago should be given the edge in Sunday’s contest, but this will not be an easy win for them. How the Bears respond after blowing another fourth-quarter lead could help or hurt Eberflus’ job status almost as much as the final result will. Buckle up, Bears fans. Things are not done being interesting, even if they are out of the playoff race.