After clinching the NFC North title last weekend, the Bears will visit the 49ers Sunday in San Francisco. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:
(1) Will the Bears defense continue to excel against an untested quarterback?
Dominant for most of the season, the Bears defense heads to San Francisco following two of its best performances in back-to-back wins. The unit held the high-powered Rams offense without a touchdown and intercepted four Jared Goff passes and followed a week later by sacking longtime nemesis Aaron Rodgers five times in a division-clinching victory over the rival Packers.
On Sunday, the Bears will face first-year quarterback Nick Mullens, who has led the 49ers to a 3-3 record since becoming the starter after San Francisco had lost seven of its first eight games. He has thrown for 1,754 yards with 10 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 96.0 passer rating.
The defense was recognized this week by landing four players in the Pro Bowl in tackle Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. The Bears did not have a defensive player voted to the Pro Bowl in the previous four seasons; cornerback Tim Jennings was the last to be honored in 2013.
The Bears enter Week 16 leading the NFL in takeaways (35), turnover margin (plus-13), interceptions (26), interception returns for touchdowns (5), points off takeaways (107), lowest opponent passer rating (73.0), three-and-out percentage (.262), fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (5) and fewest red-zone drives permitted (36).
(2) Will Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky build off a strong performance in last Sunday’s division-clinching win over the Packers?
Trubisky showed tremendous resiliency in rebounding from a sub-par outing a week earlier against the Rams to have one of his best games of the season versus the Packers. The second-year quarterback completed 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards with two touchdowns, no turnovers and a 120.4 passer rating that was the highest by a Bears quarterback against the Packers since Cade McNown posted a 123.5 on Oct. 1, 2000.
“His biggest thing is being efficient, making the automatic play,” said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. “And then letting his uniqueness … he had a couple great throws on the run, a couple great out-of-sequence type plays both run and pass and those are the plays that kind of put him in that next echelon, whatever that is. He has some unique skills with his arm, with his feet, with his competitiveness and then you just need to go back to making every layup to supplement that and that is the foundation with a great quarterback.”
Trubisky and the Bears will face a 49ers defense Sunday that ranks 12th in the NFL in total yards, 14th against the run and 12th versus the pass.
(3) How will the Bears fare in their first game without safety Eddie Jackson?
One of the defense’s top playmakers this season, Jackson did not practice all week and is listed as doubtful on the injury report with an ankle injury he sustained late in last Sunday’s win over the Packers. The second-year pro suffered the injury while returning an interception that thwarted a Green Bay drive and snapped Rodgers’ NFL-record streak of 402 passes without a pick.
Jackson is tied for third in the league with both six interceptions and 15 pass breakups. He has scored three defensive touchdowns this season, increasing his career total to five—tied for the most all-time by a player in his first two NFL seasons. Jackson already ranks fourth in Bears history in defensive TDs behind Charles Tillman (9), Mike Brown (7) and Lance Briggs (6).
When Jackson was injured against the Packers, he was replaced by Deon Bush, a third-year pro from Miami. Selected by the Bears in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, Bush has appeared in 37 games with six starts in three seasons, recording 28 tackles, one sack, one tackle-for-loss and five stops on special teams. All six of his starts and 21 of his tackles came during his rookie season in 2016.
“I’m hopeful that he’ll come in and do a good job,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “He’s been waiting for this opportunity. One thing about Deon, he works hard. Football’s important to him. He wants to do well. I’m anxious to see him play.”
(4) Will Bears remain in contention for a first-round bye in the playoffs?
Currently the third seed in the NFC playoffs, the Bears (10-4) have assured themselves of hosting a playoff game by winning their division. But they need to supplant one of the top two seeds—the Saints (12-2) or Rams (11-3)—to earn a first-round bye.
To catch the Saints, the Bears would have to win their final two games and the Saints would have to lose at home to the Steelers (8-5-1) and Panthers (6-8). To catch the Rams, the Bears would have to gain one game over Los Angeles, which closes the season by visiting the Cardinals (3-11) and hosting the 49ers (4-10).
Nagy won’t even consider resting his starters heading into the playoffs unless the seeds are cemented before the Bears’ season finale in Minnesota.
“We’re in a great situation right now where we could be a lot of different seeds,” said coach Matt Nagy. “The question that comes up of resting starters, that’s not even in the world of consideration for us. We’re trying to win. There are too many other things that can happen. The fact of the matter is realistically speaking we can be a higher seed. If you have an opportunity to do that, why wouldn’t you try for that?
“Unless you’re locked in and you can’t move, that’s when you have to decide what you want to do. But right now, we have to win.”