The Bears’ most lopsided win in five years likely did little to change coach John Fox’s fate. The three games ahead don’t figure to save him from an end-of-season firing after three years — either on New Year’s Eve or Day, depending on the Bears’ timing.
Even if Fox were to finish the season with four straight victories, there’d be an asterisk next to at least three of them. The Bears beat the Bengals 33-7 on Sunday when the Bengals were without five defensive starters. Playing the winless Browns in front of a half-empty Soldier Field on Christmas Eve is the definition of a no-win situation. And the Vikings could be starting their entire second string in the season finale on Dec. 31 if their playoff fate is secured.
Saturday’s game in Detroit, then, might be the truest test of whether the Bears and rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky have made progress in the final quarter of the season.
A win against the Lions, who are playing for their playoff lives, would be relevant — just not to the fate of Fox, who’s in the third year of a four-year contract.
With as many as 10 head-coaching vacancies expected, Fox could be coaching for his next opportunity. A player’s coach, he could sell himself to a veteran-laden team on the basis of his two Super Bowl appearances.
He hasn’t been a coordinator since 2001. It’s fair to wonder whether he could land another head coaching job — or, at age 62, if he’d even want one — but a win streak could help convince his next employer that he simply ran out of time with the Bears.
Conversely, the Bears could sell their candidates on the idea their timing is perfect.
If Trubisky were to follow his best career game with another one Saturday in Detroit, he’d continue to put lipstick on the franchise before interviews begin. If the Bears are eyeing a coordinator from a team with a first-round bye — the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles and Vikings, as of now — they’d conduct those interviews in the first week.
Luring the hottest offensive coordinator will be a lot easier if both coach and franchise are convinced Trubisky is the answer. While the Bears know Trubisky’s practice habits and film-room acumen, a job candidate can only fall in love with him by watching game film.
Of the NFL jobs that could come open, perhaps only the Texans’ and Buccaneers’, with Deshaun Watson and Jameis Winston at quarterback, respectively, could offer a coach a promising QB who isn’t due to make franchise-altering money.
A win Saturday would help stem perhaps the most disturbing Fox trend: The Bears are 3-13 against the NFC North in his tenure, with one win apiece against the Packers, Lions and Vikings. They’re 0-4 against the division this season with two division games left to play. As a result, they’ve been in last place in the division for 34 consecutive NFL weeks, and in sole possession of last place for 27 weeks and counting.
Defensive end Akiem Hicks said divisional play is the essence of football. There’s no tricking someone you play twice a year. There’s no marching up the standings — or changing a team culture — without beating those rivals.
“An old coach of mine told me once, ‘If you can’t play good against your division, what use are you to us?’ ” Hicks said. “It’s the truth. If you can’t play good against a team you’re going to play twice a year, then what’s the point of you being there?”
The Bears think they’re close — nine of Fox’s 13 losses in the NFC North have been by eight points or less — but competitive games are the very nature of divisional play.
Coming close doesn’t count.
Over the last three games, winning likely doesn’t, either.
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.