Christmas Eve came and went in the NFL, and luckily for the Chicago Bears, everything went as planned with a 27-16 victory at Soldier Field. After jumping out to a commanding 21-0 lead in the first half, the remainder of the game felt in hand... Well, for the most part. There was a short period of time where it felt like Chicago was on the verge of another disastrous blown fourth-quarter lead, but the more talented team won out.
All in all, I'm not sure that this will be a game that will weigh heavily (one way or the other) into the team's end-season calculus when evaluating jobs, but a win never hurts anyone's chances of returning the following year. With their fourth home win in a row and two games remaining, how much else is there to learn about the Bears in 2023? We'll dive into all of that and more in Week 16's 10 Bears Takes.
1. If you were looking to compare the Bears to a "bad" team to see how they stacked up, Sunday should be proof that they are heading in the right direction. The bigger question remains: Will it be enough to save jobs?
Although it's not something we've been able to say a lot in recent memory, Sunday went about as expected for the Bears. They were billed as the better team coming in. Most matchups heavily favored them. And yet, they still came out and controlled the game from start to finish.
The bar for progress might be low, but it seems clear. This is no longer a bad football team trying to be good. They are a growing football team with enough talent, learning to win. While that might seem like semantics, it's a big deal when comparing last season to what is going on now. The talent is there. Maybe not to win a Super Bowl but to win enough games to compete for a Wild Card spot. Had they not blown a trio of big fourth-quarter leads, they'd be sitting at an inversed 9-6 and in prime position for a playoff spot. Again, we're not talking about toss-up games. We're talking about commanding leads in the final quarter of football games.
When general manager Ryan Poles and team president Kevin Warren sit down on Sunday night after Week 18 to discuss the plan moving forward, everything will be taken into account. The (0-4) start. The three historically squandered fourth-quarter leads. The lack of progress on offense. Eberflus' coaching staff (both the good and the bad). But they'll also look at their (6-5) record since the disastrous opening four games. The improbable defensive turnaround under Eberflus' play calling. The development from the majority of this young roster. It will all count.
My feelings have (largely) remained the same. I do believe Poles wants to keep Eberflus. I think there's been enough shown in the last 11 games to justify doing so. That said, Chicago is two games worth of good luck away from being in a rare position. They could own the top pick in April's draft, plenty of cap flexibility, the ability to keep or change their starting quarterback, and two first-round picks. Oh, and on top of all of that, a good, ascending, young roster. That would assuredly boost the Bears to the front of the line with any head coaching candidate they choose to interview. Much like the quarterback conversation, the head coaching decision is much more complex than meets the eye. Poles' job might be safe moving into 2024 but opportunities for extensive changes (at the start of a competitive window) rarely, if ever, exist. So, Poles' decisions must not be made lightly.
2. For those wondering how the Bears would respond after another crushing defeat last Sunday. They are just fine.
It would have been easy (and understandable) for this team to come out flat on Christmas Eve. They were seven days removed from their most crushing defeat of the season. Despite controlling much of Week 15's contest, they found another way to blow their third 10-plus point fourth-quarter lead of the season. Players were clearly dejected post-game, and for most losing teams, that loss could have been the final straw in an all-around tough season.
Yet, this same team was able to come out strong and mount a 21-point lead. The defense looked in control from the start, and the offense looked like it had some added motivation against one of the league's worst defenses. They did exactly what they were supposed to do and dominated an inferior team.
Again, in two weeks, when the decision-makers have to do their jobs to kick off the off-season, this will and should be taken into account. How much it will weigh into the final calculus is anyone's best guess. It certainly won't be used against them, and it wouldn't surprise me if it comes as one of the key contributions to saving jobs. I still know what camp I'm in (because of the rare situation they'll hold), but as I've said over the past few weeks, it's easy to see how Eberflus' leadership is something that this regime could trust in moving forward.
3. In the crucial ongoing evaluation of Justin Fields, Week 16 should go into the "plus" column, even with the fourth-quarter interception. Again, though: Will it be enough?
I'd be lying if I didn't say that I expected better overall numbers from Fields on Sunday, but most of that feeling was rooted in how bad Arizona's defense has played this season. Heading into Week 16, they were dead last in Defensive DVOA.
As a whole, I would say the Bears' offense had a successful day. They totaled 27 points, and 420 total yards, and their offensive line dominated the day. They rattled off a trio of consecutive touchdown drives and were able to put it into cruise control after that. Much like the majority of this season and this regime's time, the evaluation comes away incomplete though. Injuries played a big part in the passing game. We'll dive into that more later, but when two of your top three receiving targets are banged up and miss time, it's not going to be an easy time.
Even so, I felt like Fields looked poised and in control overall. He finished 15-of-27 for 170 passing yards, a touchdown and that one interception in the end zone. He also added 97 yards and a touchdown on the ground. In many ways, this was a classic Justin Fields performance.
The biggest question I keep coming back to is simple: Will it be enough? Right now, I tend to say no. All of this assumes that the Bears end up with the No. 1 overall pick. If the Panthers reel off two wins in a row, all bets are off. In a normal situation, I believe Fields has absolutely done enough to roll with confidence into Year 4. But as we've talked about, this is not a normal situation, and that cannot be overlooked. Either way, Fields continues to build his case, and even if he's not starting in Chicago next season, he'll be in demand this off-season. All he can do is continue to play at the highest level possible and let the rest play out. One thing is for sure: This is not going to be a clear-cut evaluation, and a lot of that can be placed at the feet of offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
4. The continued high-level play of this defense continues to amaze me.
I'll be the first to admit that I was far too skeptical of this defense after true improvements were being made. While many will credit the acquisition of Montez Sweat as the key contributor, I believe that Eberflus and his mid-season hire of defensive analyst Phil Snow have made the biggest difference over the two months. The talent was always there, especially in the secondary. The confidence in the play calling and the coaching to place that talent in the best positions to succeed were my biggest complaints at the start of the season.
Now, this unit is flying around the ball. They're consistently winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, and now, more than ever, it appears that the secondary is making plays on the ball just as much as the opposing receivers are. The entire mentality is different, and because of that, the talent has been able to shine through.
Sunday was just another example of that. Almost all game, they looked like the best unit on the field. They were able to pressure quarterback Kyler Murray, while also keeping him pinned in the pocket. When he was throwing the ball, defensive backs almost seemed to know where the throw was going before Murray did. When they were running the ball, the Bears' defensive front was blowing the offensive line back at the point of attack. While the sacks weren't overly plentiful (2), and they didn't force a takeaway, the dominance was still on full display.
Most importantly, the majority of this group is locked in for 2024. I could be wrong, but I don't see Poles allowing cornerback Jaylon Johnson to hit the open market. My best guess would be the franchise tag, but I wouldn't rule out an extension before that point. Not only are most of these starters locked in, the depth behind them is much better than expected. Jack Sanborn continues to prove valuable at all three linebacker spots. Terell Smith has flashed as a rookie. Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens have also shown plenty of flashes.
There's plenty to like about this group, and yet, still plenty of areas for improvement this off-season. If Eberflus does not return, it will be vastly important to find a defensive coordinator who runs a similar scheme. Allowing this group to continue to grow can be a huge help, especially with notable offensive improvement in 2024 and beyond.
5. A few key offensive injuries will be worth monitoring heading into another winnable Week 17 matchup.
A few plays into the opening drive, receiver DJ Moore went down awkwardly after a six-yard catch. Without the official snap count in front of me, I would have to guestimate that he played far fewer snaps than he would have if he were healthy. Later in the first half, tight end Cole Kmet went out (after a career day) and did not return for the second half with a knee injury. If that wasn't bad enough, left tackle Braxton Jones was rolled up on late in the final drive and didn't look right coming off the field. All of that is on the heels of left guard Teven Jenkins missing Sunday's game after sustaining a concussion in Week 15. Equanimous St. Brown has also missed multiple games with an injury sustained in practice.
Week 17's matchup will be against a much better defense. It's a winnable game (more on that later), but it's one where they'll need all of their horses to compete. The statuses of these players will be vastly important as we navigate through New Year's week.
6. Extending kicker Cairo Santos on Saturday was met with much more criticism than I would have assumed. Why his four-year, $16 million extension made sense for both sides.
For anyone who has followed my 10 Bears Takes throughout the year, you know my feelings on the Bears' kicker. There was plenty that went wrong in the Ryan Pace era but extending Santos after an impressive comeback in 2020 was not one of those. In his second-stint with the Bears, he's 106-for-116 (91%). As of his latest signed extension last Saturday, he's the most accurate kicker in franchise history.
Sure, paying kickers can be a bit of a gamble, but at a $4 million annual average value, he ranks as the 13th highest-paid kicker in the league. The Bears could have chosen to take their chances in the draft or with an undrafted free agent but for a team that envisions themselves as "close" to contending, why would they add another element of risk to the equation? All in all, I fully believe that the contract is a good value for both sides and something that makes complete sense. Outside of Jaylon Johnson, there won't be many mysteries heading into free agency. It's also worth noting that due to Santos' previous contract, he would have accounted for $1 million in dead cap due to a void year, so even if his cap hit is $4 million, it'll only add $3 million in cap responsibility for 2024.
7. Post-Week 16 draft position recap (pre-Monday slate): The Carolina Panthers are one loss away from giving Chicago the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft.
Unlike last Sunday, Week 16 was very fruitful for the Bears' "efforts" of landing the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft. Not only did the Panthers drop to (2-13) on the season with a 33-30 loss against the Green Bay Packers but the New England Patriots pulled out an unexpected win on Sunday night against the Denver Broncos. With two games remaining in the regular season, all that's left for the Bears to hold the top pick is a Panthers loss.
To be clear, that's not the only way, but it's the easiest and most likely. Carolina closes out the season with a Week 17 road matchup against the reeling Jacksonville Jaguars, and then they'll close out the season at home against the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There's a real chance that the Bucs will have the division wrapped up, which means they'll likely be resting starters in the season finale.
Despite the Cardinals losing to Chicago today, their .564 strength of schedule ranks as the second highest in the NFL. This means any tie-breaking scenario between the Panthers and Cardinals will undoubtedly favor Carolina. In the unlikely scenario that the Panthers win out, the Washington Commanders could factor into the equation due to their low strength of schedule and current four-win status. That's not worth getting into unless the Panthers pull out the upset next weekend in Jacksonville, though.
As for the Bears' own pick, they currently sit at No. 8 overall. My guess is that barring a surprise, Chicago will be picking in the Top 10. They could win out but assuming they don't, assuming a Top 10 pick feels safe. Barring something unexpected, it's unlikely that their pick will find its way back into the Top 5, though. So, mock draft accordingly.
8. NFC North lookaround: The Detroit Lions are NFC North Champions for the first time ever, after a thrilling 30-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. The Green Bay Packers' late field goal keeps them in the playoff race.
All jokes aside, congratulations to the Lions and their fans. It's been a largely miserably last three decades for that fan base and to be completely honest, the Lions have been a fun team to follow in 2023. They also could provide a similar blueprint for the Bears to get back into contention for 2024. It's nice to see a new team in the mix for the division (since it's not the Bears).
The Vikings and Packers seasons currently hang in the balance at (7-8). Both teams will face off in Week 17, which will act as a Wild Card eliminator. The winner stays in contention, while the loser can start to make off-season plans. I'd give the edge to the Packers right now but there's a very good chance Minnesota's Week 18 matchup will be against a Lions team that is resting starters for the playoffs. Green Bay currently holds a (30%) chance at the playoffs, which is (4%) better than Minnesota heading into their head-to-head matchup.
Barring an upset, the Bears are destined for the cellar in 2023 for the second straight year.
Coming into Week 16, Atlanta looked dead in the water after a vastly disappointing 9-7 loss to the Panthers. Bears fans know all about that game, as it came as a double-whammy to Chicago blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in Cleveland. A week later, the Falcons' playoff hopes are hanging in the balance. With a Tampa Bay win on Sunday, the division race is done. With a New Orleans Saints win on Sunday, the Falcons would have a chance (with a win against the Bears) in Week 18.
Technically, the Bears are still clinging to the slimmest of playoff hopes, but even with a win next Sunday, those chances will probably be officially dashed. Either way, both teams (and head coaches) have plenty to play for. Jobs are hanging in the balance, and a slim chance at the playoffs will be on the line. Chicago opens up as 3-point favorites, so we'll see if that line moves pending the health of Moore and Kmet.
10. A big thank you and a Happy Holidays to all of our readers.
While this season has not gone as planned for many fans around the world, I will always be thankful for those who continue to read our work here at Windy City Gridiron. This has been a particularly trying year for me personally, but it's nice to know that I have the support of many of our readers. I truly hope that you all have a happy, safe, and enjoyable holiday season. For those of you who are struggling, please know that you're not alone, and do not be afraid to reach out for help. You will always matter to many more than you'll ever know and this world is better with you in it.