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10 Bears Takes: Five straight at home, the No. 1 pick, what week 18 could mean

Despite an ugly (0-4) start, the Chicago Bears are streaking. Winners of four out of their last five games, they’ll have a chance to end their season on a high-note by knocking off their hated divisional rival in Green Bay. More on the impressive turnaround and what else went right in Week 17.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bears needed to finish the season on a high note to avoid multiple big changes, and so far, they’ve held up their end of the bargain. The impressive second half to the season was continued in Week 17 after a 37-17 home finale victory on Sunday. Outside of an impressive but fruitless opening drive from the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago was once again in full control for the entirety of the game. A Bears win wasn’t the only thing that happened on Sunday, and we’ll dive into all that and more after an eventful Week 17 slate in this installment of 10 Bears Takes.

1. With the No. 1 overall pick, the Chicago Bears...

There was a very clear scenario heading into Sunday that would lock the Bears into the top pick in the 2024 NFL Draft for the second straight season. All they needed was a Carolina Panthers loss, and an Arizona Cardinals win. If Arizona did not win, they just needed three of the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals or the Bears to win their games on Sunday. All of that is for the strength of schedule purposes.

In the end, we didn’t need to worry about any strength of schedule calculations because not only did the Panthers get blown out 26-0 on the road in Jacksonville but the Cardinals shocked the Eagles in Philadelphia with a 35-31 victory.

So, what does this all mean? It’s far too early to tell. But it does mean the Bears are in yet another advantageous position with the upcoming off-season. Not only will they have plenty of cap space ($64 million before any cuts), but they’ll hold the top pick, another pick in the Top 15, and more importantly, plenty of room to maneuver around. Regardless of where you sit in the team’s quarterback debate, Chicago holding the top pick in April’s draft is a great thing to have in your back pocket.

2. Quarterback Justin Fields had arguably the second-best first half of his career on Sunday.

Fields finished an impressive first half going 13-of-17 for 166 passing yards and two total touchdowns. Considering how up in the air his reported future in Chicago is, this was a big step in the right direction for the third-year quarterback. Not only was he accurate in less-than-ideal conditions, but he also looked in command. The second half wasn’t quite as impressive, but with a convincing lead in hand, he wasn’t asked to do as much. Even so, he finished the game 20-of-32 for 268 passing yards and the first half throwing touchdown. He also added 45 yards and a rushing touchdown. Of his 11 rushes, two of those came in big spots to extend drives.

All in all, this was one of Fields’ more impressive performances in his three-year career. Some may look at the Falcons and wonder why, but their defense ranked in the top half of the league in most statistical categories coming into Sunday’s game. If there’s been one trend so far in 2023, it’s the offensive struggles against top defenses. Considering they totaled 432 yards and 37 points, it’s hard not to see this as a win for the unit as a whole. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy included. I’d still bet against Getsy returning in 2024, but this was one of those performances that could be highlighted at the season’s end.

There’s still plenty to sift through when looking at the futures of the coaching staff and Fields, but having a strong performance against a good defense this late in the year can only help Fields’ prospects of being the team’s quarterback for 2024 and beyond. With the No. 1 overall pick in hand, one thing is for sure: The Bears sit in a great position moving into the off-season. These types of games only reinforce that.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Chicago Bears Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

3. Heading into Sunday, NFL Network reported that head coach Matt Eberflus was trending toward saving his job with a strong finish. Sunday’s victory only solidifies his chances of being the head coach in 2024.

After Sunday’s victory, the Bears are (4-1) over the last five games. Their lone loss was a blown 10-point fourth-quarter lead against a Joe Flacco-led Cleveland Browns team that clinched a playoff spot on Thursday night. Chicago hasn’t lost by more than one score since their ugly 30-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in late October. For the better part of two months, they’ve been playing good football and have shown plenty to be excited about in the near future.

After a 20-point blowout win to close out a (5-3) home record for 2023, it appears the Eberflus did enough to save his job after a (0-4) start. At this point, I would assume that it would take a blowout loss at Green Bay next weekend for them to even have second thoughts about bringing back the second-year head coach for 2024.

On paper, it’s more than justifiable. The majority of realistic on-lookers had them as a seven-to-eight-win football team back in August. They’ve already more than doubled their win total from one year ago. Their defense has turned into a Top 10 unit, and there are viable young building blocks all over this roster. Even so, how this season has played out should give folks some pause. The locker room (clearly) never gave up on Eberflus, and that should be noted. But it wasn’t until the departure of former defensive coordinator Alan Williams that this defense took off. Williams mysteriously departing the team early in the season, followed up by the dismissal of running backs coach David Walker are still blackeyes for the head coach. The fact that they’ve blown an NFL-high three 10-plus point fourth-quarter leads is the difference between locking up a Wild Card spot versus being eliminated on Sunday. For as impressive as the defensive turnaround has been, the offense is a completely different story. From where I stand, Eberflus has subtly distanced himself from offensive coordinator Luke Getsy over the past few weeks. Some of his pointed comments have been direct criticisms of the offensive mind that he hired. While the talent on the offensive depth chart has improved, the results have been uneven at best.

Now that we’ve almost arrived at a decision for Eberflus, the next question becomes simple: What does he do in both coordinator positions? If it were me, I wouldn’t change a thing on defense. I’d keep Eberflus calling plays and try to hire Phil Snow full-time in a similar role. If they need to make him a defensive coordinator to retain him, great. Offensively, I’m still finding it hard to fathom a scenario where both Getsy and Fields return together. The marriage has not worked, and one 37-point performance will not change that. The offense lacks bite after the script runs out. The development of offensive skill players has been scarce. Fields’ development has not taken off the way it should have either.

Keeping Eberflus is a big decision and one that will not be made lightly. Not only would this be their second head coach in three seasons but it would require Chicago’s ownership to foot the bill on another fired coaching staff that is no longer with the team. The financial factor should not be overlooked. If all goes well and Eberflus does return, there needs to be an offensive-heavy approach this off-season. That starts at offensive coordinator and then moves onto the quarterback position. If they choose to replace Getsy, I worry about the amount of quality options they’ll hold. If the speculation of 7-10 head coaching openings proves true, the race for quality offensive minds will be competitive. I find it hard to believe that the top candidates will look at a potential lame-duck situation in 2024 and find it more attractive than starting out with a new coaching staff. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s a factor to consider.

Chicago is in a prime position to pivot any way they choose. While some might pretend to know the answer when it’s made, it’ll take a while to play out.

4. The Bears’ playoff hopes ended Sunday despite their win, which is why many fans will be hung up on those three blown fourth-quarter losses.

In all reality, Chicago should be heading into Week 18 at (10-6). We’re not talking about close games that could have gone either way. We’re talking about three different blown 10-plus point fourth-quarter leads that ended up in losses. Some may argue that a better coaching staff would have this team where they need to be. Others would say that this is the price a team will pay when they are learning to win. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Even so, an extra win would have them right in the mix moving into the final game of the season. Let’s say they held onto the game in Cleveland. They’d be on a five-game winning streak and would be a win and some help away from the seventh seed. Even two of three would have them as a virtual lock for a playoff spot. Despite that, Chicago will be looking to play spoiler in Week 18 instead. A win and the Packers can’t make the playoffs. In some ways, it would feel similar to how things ended for the 2022 Detroit Lions last season. Most fans would have taken being “in the hunt” in Week 17 after last year’s (3-14) effort.

It’s an unfortunate end to the season, but again, it’s not hard to see light at the end of the tunnel as early as next season. A lot of that will depend on the off-season decisions ahead, but one thing is for sure: The Chicago Bears are no longer a bad team. That’s quite the development after a (0-4) start.

5. I’m not sure there was a bigger move that general manager Ryan Poles could have made other than getting the Panthers to include receiver DJ Moore in March’s massive trade down haul.

For any of you who follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve been a fair critic of Poles over the past two years. His free agency approach has proven to be calculated, if not conservative. He’s been a true best player available decision maker in the draft and has shied away from those he deems character concerns. It has cost them top talent, but the alternatives have proven to be good players in their respects.

The one move he did not go conservative with was demanding Moore be a part of their early-March draft trade. Sure, the focus (right now) is on the No. 1 overall pick the Bears will receive in April. It’s a big deal and should be lauded. There was also plenty of “luck” involved in how that has all played out. What wasn’t lucky? Knowing he needed a No. 1 receiver and making sure he got one. Reflecting on how few of options Poles had, the impact of landing Moore in that trade was undervalued at the time.

Through 16 games, Moore has a team-leading 92 catches for 1,300 yards and nine total touchdowns. He’s two catches away from setting a new career high in that department and has already set career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns. His 14.1 average yards per reception is right in line with his career average. In short, he’s having a career year, and things should only get better. It’s hard to imagine another scenario where Poles would have landed a similar production last season. Moore’s presence will help soften the blow going into the off-season where they’ll need at least one more top-end receiving target and another supporting-cast type of receiver. Don’t be surprised if Poles gives Moore some additional money during this off-season to keep him happy and under team control for more than his current deal, which runs through 2025. He’ll be owed a touch over $32 million through the final two years of his current contract.

6. Speaking of Poles, Sunday was yet another big week for his first two draft classes on Sunday.

For those keeping track at home, the impact rate on Poles’ first two draft classes continues to grow. Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker, and Tyrique Stevenson are all key members of the team’s secondary. Gordon and Brisker have thrived in Year 2, while Stevenson has seen quite the second-half surge in his rookie season. Gervon Dexter Sr. is another rookie who has taken a sizeable step forward in the back half of his rookie season. The rookie defensive tackle totaled a sack and a half on Sunday and has now factored into four sacks this season. His pass rush win rate is second, only to Jalen Carter with interior rookie defensive linemen.

Right tackle Darnell Wright has started all 16 games at right tackle. While he’s had his struggles at times, he’s been impressive as a pass blocker and has improved as a run blocker. Roschon Johnson has been a nice complimentary running back, and Terell Smith has impressed me with his growing playing time on the boundary. Zacch Pickens was always more of a developmental project, and Ja’Tyre Carter has been impressive when called upon. Poles’ biggest success story might be 2022 fifth-round left tackle Braxton Jones. Coming from a small school and continuing to improve as a pass blocker has been an unexpected, yet delightful development.

With a pair of first-round picks incoming in April, it’s not hard to see another youthful infusion coming for 2024. The draft will always be the lifeblood of any franchise, and for the first time in a while, the Bears are finally seeing the fruits of those labors.

7. Call it recency bias, but I’m not sure the Bears are far from being a “good” football team. Regardless of their upcoming decisions, it’s very clear that Chicago is headed in the right direction and should have playoff aspirations for 2024.

The Bears had their fair share of blowout losses in the first half of this season. Those should not be overlooked but could also provide a better look into how improved this team is. Since Week 8’s 30-13 blowout loss in Los Angeles to the Chargers, the Bears have not lost by more than a touchdown. In total, they’ve lost three games since October 29th. While their overall point differential sits at (-11) heading into Week 18, they’ve been (+36) since Week 8.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Bears are magically fixed, and we should expect a 2022 Lions-like turnaround in 2024. There’s still plenty of work to do in the off-season, including some crucial decisions at the top of their day-to-day football operations. But if they can ride the same wave into next season, with an improved roster, and better coaching, there’s no reason why they can’t be challenging for the NFC North or a high Wild Card spot next season. The future appears much brighter in Chicago, regardless of what plays out in Week 18. That’s something that many couldn’t have said they saw coming after a disastrous (0-4) start, in which they were blown out three times.

8. NFC North look around: The Detroit Lions’ weird two-point gamble that lost them a critical game, and the Green Bay Packers who won a crucial Week 17 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.

The stage is all set for a critical Week 18 within the NFC North between the Bears and Packers at Lambeau Field. With Green Bay’s impressive Week 17 victory over Minnesota, the Packers will have a chance at playoff redemption in the final game of the season. Chicago might not have anything “real” to play for, but capping off a season with their first win in five years at Green Bay would be more than a moral victory.

For Detroit, their late-game gamble to go for two on not one, or two, but three different tries, cost them any chance at the No. 1 seed next weekend. The Lions will be fighting for positioning between the second and third seeds, but neither spot will lend them a playoff bye week. Considering they are playing the Vikings, neither team will have much to play for.

After all that has happened this season, the Bears will have a chance to exit the NFC North cellar in 2023 with a win (and a Vikings loss).

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

9. Week 18 look ahead: The (8-8) Green Bay Packers, who will be fighting for a playoff spot.

As noted above, the stage is set for a fun Week 18 season finale between the two oldest rivals in the sport. On the line: A playoff spot for the Packers. It’ll be pretty simple for Green Bay: Win and they’re in. Lose, and it’ll take a loss from both the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks.

For Chicago, there’s nothing but pride and preservation on the line. A win would undoubtedly save Eberflus. It could also solidify the 2024 starting quarterback job for Fields. While there might not be a playoff spot on the line (unfortunately), there will be plenty to play for in regards to the Bears. Buckle up, Bears fans. We’re in for one more meaningful game to close out a relatively successful 2023 campaign!

10. Happy New Year, and try to enjoy the final week of the regular season!

I hope everyone had a great Christmas/Holiday season. It’s been a busy one here at the Leming household, but we are ready to turn the page to a new year! Although this won’t come out until New Year’s Day, I hope everyone had a safe time celebrating. For those who set new resolutions, may they last longer than most of mine do! Oh, and try to enjoy the last week of the regular season. While the Bears might not be in the playoff mix, this will be the last “meaningful” game we get to enjoy for the next nine months.