Location: Ford Field, Detroit, MI
Kickoff: 1:00 EST
Betting Line: DET -3.5
Three of the final four games will be division rivalry games, beginning with the NFC North leading Detroit Lions. Chicago will not be favored in any of these games and will likely be the only team in the division to finish below .500. Washington is the other game on the schedule, coming in as a team going through a tense season. Nine of the Redskins’ games have been decided by one possession, compared to just five for Chicago. As the season’s end draws nearer, the objectives of each team shift. For the remaining opponents of Chicago, every game is a potential step towards the playoffs. For Chicago, every game is an opportunity to put young players in challenging environments, evaluate them, and train them for a season with more hope than this one.
At 3-9, Chicago is positioned currently for a 4th overall pick behind Cleveland, San Francisco, and Jacksonville. Chicago wins the strength of schedule tie with the New York Jets, where the weaker schedule gets the better pick in the case of a tie in overall record. Cleveland’s miserable year doesn’t appear to be getting better any time soon, though some movement is possible after the top pick. San Francisco plays the Jets this week at home and has another potential win on the schedule when they drive down to Los Angeles. Two wins by the 49ers and a win by the Jacksonville Jaguars could jump the Bears to the #2 pick. A strong quarterback and running back draft is projected, though in my opinion, Chicago’s biggest need is in the secondary. Chicago may take a playmaker like Deshaun Watson or Leonard Fournette, or even trade their 1st round pick for a shutdown corner or all-purpose safety.
Matthew Stafford Thrives Despite Key Loss
Last year, Calvin Johnson elected to retire from professional football. A lifelong Lion, Megatron surprised Detroit fans with the announcement, which was met with mixed reactions. Everyone appreciated his contributions to the franchise and understood his desire to protect his body, but as the only player in franchise history with over 10,000 receiving yards, worry set in. Matthew Stafford’s statement on Calvin Johnson’s retirement may have hidden the secret that has been unveiled this year. Stafford focused more on Johnson’s character than his talent: “He is truly one of a kind in his humility and grace both on and off the field.” Stafford may have realized that Johnson’s world class talent was actually holding the Lions back.
Whether Stafford knew it or not, the Lions offensive mindset improved this season. Detroit’s Megatron-sized hole was filled by a free agent signing named Marvin Jones Jr. He and Golden Tate have changed Detroit’s offense from “Throw it to Calvin” to “throw it to whoever is open.” Four players for Detroit have either 50+ receptions or 700+ yards this season, more than any other team. After a rough start, the Lions have not put up impressive season stats (29th rushing offense, 15th passing offense, 15th defense). However, they’ve stretched out a two-game lead in the NFC North by winning seven of their last eight. One point of interest for the Lions roster is this week’s addition of Joique Bell. The running back was released by Detroit before the season, signed with the Bears during the season, and played in the Lions/Bears game at Soldier Field. Bell has signed back on with Detroit and will likely see some special teams action on Sunday.
Solid Foundations in the Windy City
Chicago has been largely disappointing this season, though not at the expense of the success of some individuals. Jordan Howard earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors earlier this season and has solidified himself as the top rusher in Chicago. Howard’s contract isn’t set in stone but it could potentially keep him running for the Bears until 2019.
DL Akiem Hicks has been the most consistent Bear this season, playing in every game and working with numerous counterparts on an injured defensive line. Hicks was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after getting in the backfield repeatedly against San Francisco. He finished with two sacks and a forced fumble to continue his Pro Bowl effort, and Hicks’ contract will bring him back next year alongside Mitch Unrein and Eddie Goldman. Rookie center Cody Whitehair and guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton are all on multi-year contracts, so the interior offensive line has some consistency. While the quarterback remains the biggest question mark going into the offseason, the Bears can rely on their core producers to support a rebuilding franchise.