The Bears went into this challenging three-game stretch looking like a team that would be happy to escape with just one win. If they could steal one against the Rams, Saints or Titans and come out on the other side at 6-3, they’d take it.
Now they go into a game Sunday at the Titans as a touchdown underdog — they’ve been the underdog in all but one game this season — facing the likelihood of going 0 for 3 and completing their plunge from the No. 1 seed in the NFC to eighth place.
And the truth is it doesn’t really matter.
It’s more of the same for the Bears. They’ve been completely unconvincing. Their defense has looked remarkably human lately, and switching to Nick Foles at quarterback hasn’t fixed anything offensively. They’re still scoring 17-23 points and hoping it’ll somehow be enough.
This team needs a lot of improvement between now and January.
“Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,” Khalil Mack said. “There’s a lot of improvements, man. That’s the challenge. That’s the challenge every week is to go out and get better.
“It’s going to be huge this week, understanding the challenge we’re facing in the Titans’ offense. It’s going to be a great challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.”
But, despite their flaws, the Bears’ record has been decent-to-good all season and they’re on track to make the playoffs. It’s a weird team in a weird year.
As long as they can cherry pick wins against the bad teams left on their schedule, the Bears will almost certainly careen into a wild-card spot in the newly expanded seven-team playoff field. No matter what happened over this stretch, the Bears would land on what looks like a pillow-soft home stretch that includes two games against the Vikings (2-5) and one each versus the Lions (3-4), Texans (1-6) and Jaguars (1-6).
Knowing those cupcakes would be there for them meant these three games were never do-or-die for the Bears, but what they offered was a chance to prove they are capable of playing at the level of some of the NFL’s better teams.
None of these three opponents look like Super Bowl contenders, but they’re a lot better than the Lions, Giants and Falcons (9-17, collectively). And it might turn out that the best the Bears could do was take the Saints to overtime.
That’s what’s on the line for them Sunday. A win or loss against the Titans probably won’t be the reason they make or miss the playoffs, but it’s an opportunity to show they’re good enough to be a legitimate threat if they get there.
It’s an ideal proving ground on three fronts:
- Foles needs to take a step forward against an average defense after putting up a 78.1 passer rating with five touchdowns and six interceptions the last five games.
- The defense needs to answer the many questions swirling around its ability to slow down a ground game, and the challenger in this case is Derrick Henry — the most dominant running back in the NFL the last two seasons.
- Nagy has to coach with who he has, not who he wishes he had. Is he flexible enough to veer from his lofty idea of what this offense can be and stick to a basic game plan that works for these players?
Those are questions they couldn’t answer the last two weeks, when they got humiliated by the Rams and lost control of the Saints game by allowing a 20-0 run, and — much more importantly — they’re the same questions they’d in the playoffs.
If the Bears aspire to more than mere mediocrity, the Titans game is a good measurement of where they’re at. It won’t determine whether they make the playoffs, but it’ll tell you a lot about what will happen when they get there.