True or false: The Chicago Bears have a ton to build on as the year ends — including an impressive Soldier Field winning streak

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With two games left in their season, the Chicago Bears are attempting to finish strong. Last weekend’s 27-16 defeat of the Arizona Cardinals was the Bears’ fourth win in the past six games. And their two losses in that span came in games in which they held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.

Tthe Bears are playing a much better brand of football than they did in 2022 — not to mention the first four weeks of this season. But there’s still a lot to sift through and interpret as the powers that be at Halas Hall work to put the team on a championship course.

The Atlanta Falcons will visit Sunday for the home finale at Soldier Field. A Week 18 trip to Lambeau Field awaits behind that. In the home stretch of the regular season, Tribune writers Dan Wiederer and Colleen Kane look into four notable topics through a “true or false” lens.

True or false? The Bears’ home-winning streak has flown under the radar.

Wiederer: True. I have to admit that when coach Matt Eberflus recognized Sunday’s defeat of the Cardinals as the Bears’ fourth consecutive victory at Soldier Field, I had to mentally conduct a quick fact-check. Week 16: Cardinals? Check. Week 14: Lions? Check. Week 10: Panthers? Check. Week 7: Raiders? Check. Yep. It all checked out.

The Bears haven’t lost at home since a 19-13 setback against the Vikings on Oct. 15, the game in which Justin Fields dislocated his right thumb. In the two-and-a-half months since? Win, win, win, win. That’s more evidence of notable progress from a team that is improving and trending in the right direction in a lot of ways. This weekend’s home finale will present a golden opportunity to continue that winning streak. So for those hoping to pop the New Year’s Eve champagne a little early on Sunday, the Bears may provide a reason for celebration in the midafternoon.

Kane: Glad I wasn’t the only one sifting through the calendar in my mind to fact-check Eberflus’ statement in the moment. I think the home streak in part went under the radar because this season has been so much about the results of Fields, and two of the wins came during Fields’ injury with Tyson Bagent at the helm.

For some reason, I was more conscious of the Bears having won three of four prime-time games this season — against the Washington Commanders, the Panthers and the Vikings. The one night loss was to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Both of those records have a little something to do with the strength of opponents the Bears faced in those games. But you’re right, the Bears have shown progress, and that shouldn’t be discounted.

The Falcons, though, aren’t an automatic champagne pop. Their defense ranks in the top 10 in several categories, including yards (308.4) and points (19.2) allowed per game. So it should be a sign of even more progress if the Bears can pull off their fifth-straight home win.

True or false? Terell Smith has been among the most surprising Bears players this season.

Kane: True. The fifth-round pick out of Minnesota, who missed five games midseason with mononucleosis, made some big plays Sunday, though that’s probably not a surprise to the Bears coaches who have spoken highly of him since training camp. The Bears think enough of Smith that they are rotating him with fellow rookie and second-round pick Tyrique Stevenson. He played 49% of the snaps in Sunday’s game, and he was in the middle of back-to-back stops as the Cardinals tried to put together a game-tying drive.

On third-and-6 late in the fourth quarter, Smith broke up Kyler Murray’s pass to Michael Wilson. On fourth-and-6, Murray went toward Smith’s side again, but Greg Dortch fell with Smith covering him, and the pass was incomplete. Coach Matt Eberflus praised Smith’s growth after the game.

The simultaneous development of Stevenson and Smith, plus the steps forward from cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Kyler Gordon, have been one of the more positive developments for the Bears this year. There may have been bigger surprises — the acquisition of Montez Sweat, Tyson Bagent becoming the backup quarterback — but the way Smith and Stevenson are playing together has also been a good one.

Wiederer: One of Eberflus’ core beliefs as a coach is to play young players with great potential as early as possible, accelerating their growth and allowing them to emerge as difference-makers. That happened in 2022 with defensive backs like Gordon and Jaquan Brisker and is continuing this season with Smith and Stevenson. It’s a calculated approach to push young players through the inevitable growing pains while providing a wealth of experience. So Smith’s ability to take advantage of his opportunities as a rookie is notable.

As far as pleasant surprises on this team, I’ll take this down a different path. Gordon, for example, continues to be a tenacious playmaker whose presence is felt in every game. The same can be said for T.J. Edwards, who I knew was a solid linebacker but has surpassed my expectations with how instinctive and consistently assignment-sound he has been. I’ll also give a nod to Andrew Billings — ”Big Bill” as he is known inside Halas Hall — who has been incredible on the interior of the Bears’ run defense and not only produced at a level to justify the one-year contract he signed last spring but to earn a two-year extension from Ryan Poles midway through the season. Good stuff.

True or false: Bears general manager Ryan Poles will soon face a massive decision on whether to either keep Justin Fields as quarterback and build around him or reset by drafting a new QB.

Wiederer: False. The sentiment that drafting a quarterback in April will also require a full reset is misguided. In fact, Poles has the opportunity to choose a new quarterback if so desired and continue building an already stable roster up around a rookie. As it stands now, the Bears could use the No. 1 overall pick to choose Caleb Williams — or even Drake Maye or J.J. McCarthy — and still walk out of the first night of the draft with another top-10 prospect who can be a Week 1 starter in 2024. (While subject to change, the Bears’ current first-round draft picks reside at No. 1 and No. 8.) The Bears would then have four additional draft choices to work with. They will also walk into March with enough salary cap flexibility to make multiple notable splashes in free agency.

Barring significant missteps, an improving team is positioned to be even better in 2024, regardless of who the quarterback is. And any contention that the Bears would inevitably take a significant step back next season with a rookie quarterback is anxiety-based guesswork at best.

A rapidly improving defense will be positioned for success in 2024. Receiver DJ Moore, tight end Cole Kmet and offensive tackle Darnell Wright aren’t going anywhere. The current Bears, even with a disastrous 0-4 start and three crushing blown-lead losses, have kept themselves near the playoff race to the end of December. Whether it’s Fields taking snaps or a first-round rookie, the Bears won’t have to lower the bar next season on their journey to becoming an annual playoff contender.

Kane: You are right that whichever quarterback is with the Bears in 2024 should be stepping into a better situation overall given the work Poles already has done on the roster and the resources he has at his disposal to continue building. So no, the Bears wouldn’t be totally resetting if they choose to draft a quarterback.

I just don’t know that I would brush off the idea that bringing in a rookie quarterback could set the team back a year or more. Of course it could. And maybe that’s an anxiety-based statement, given what we have witnessed with the last two quarterbacks the Bears have drafted. But it’s also an acknowledgment that teams miss all the time with their quarterback choices and an acknowledgment that quarterback development can take significant time.

I’m not saying that drafting a quarterback wouldn’t be worth it. And you might be right that the Bears should be a better team in 2024 — but the quarterback will play a huge part in that.

True or false: The Bears need to be concerned about Teven Jenkins’ durability issues.

Kane: True. Jenkins missed the game against the Cardinals while in concussion protocol, the fifth game he has missed this season. Jenkins could be back at left guard this week after practicing in full Wednesday while still in the protocol. But having concerns about his durability is nothing new after a slew of injuries over his first three seasons. He even has talked multiple times about his efforts to improve his health.

Eberflus has praised Jenkins’ growth in his maturity and how he works this year. That has paid off in a very good year for Jenkins on the Bears offensive line — when he has been on the field. But the Bears undoubtedly would like him to cut down on the games missed with injury. As Eberflus said, durability equals dependability.

Wiederer: When Jenkins has been healthy, he has been a force up front. So the biggest question he faces at the end of his third season is still about availability. “That’s always a factor when you look at players,” Eberflus said Wednesday. “You want to make sure the durability is there because that equals dependability.”

After returning from injured reserve in Week 5 and handling an ease-in workload against the Commanders, Jenkins made nine consecutive starts and played every offensive snap in seven of those games. That was a big step in the right direction. Jenkins also left the Bears’ Week 12 Monday night game against the Minnesota Vikings with an injury but returned to finish that contest. Then, on Dec. 17, he suffered a concussion against the Cleveland Browns and has been out since.

If Jenkins is cleared to play this week, his ability to finish the season strong would be a plus as the Bears continue his evaluation. The coaching staff has been thrilled with his continued development and maturity and would love to reduce the worries about his availability. Head injuries, of course, fall in a far different category than soft tissue problems. So Jenkins’ latest setback must be kept in the right frame of reference.


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