What does the future hold for Justin Fields, Matt Eberflus and the No. 1 pick? Brad Biggs’ 10 thoughts on the Chicago Bears.

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The pleasant aroma of cigar smoke still hung in the air a little bit in the locker room at Soldier Field after the Chicago Bears polished off a 37-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

10 thoughts after the Bears won their fifth consecutive home game, something they last accomplished in 2018.

1. It’s a little unusual to see cigars passed around a locker room for a 7-9 team, but considering it was New Year’s Eve, why not?

Also factor in where this team has come from after a moribund 2022 season and a disastrous 0-4 start to this year.

The team’s playoff hopes had been all but extinguished and they were left to root for a tie in the Green Bay-Minnesota nightcap. There hasn’t been a tie in the league this season and only five since the beginning of 2019.

That’s the vibe I got, anyway. The Bears are a young team that is coming together and beginning to feel itself in a league where confidence is a prerequisite for any chance for success. This group has had to learn from bumps in the road and painful lessons, notably in heartbreaking losses to the Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. What’s been impressive is they haven’t allowed those setbacks to start a downward spiral. One terrible loss leads to another and by the time you’ve flipped the calendar to the next month, the team is careening out of control. The Bears have a home winning streak and are 4-1 in their last five games.

This game was won with the kind of formula coach Matt Eberflus has been preaching in terms of complementary football. Quarterback Justin Fields was 20 of 32 for 268 yards and one touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over. He also ran for a score and made some dazzling plays with his legs. Running back Khalil Herbert carried 18 times for a season-high 124 yards and a score and wide receiver DJ Moore was targeted 13 times, making nine catches for 159 yards with a score. The offense ran a season-high 72 plays, possessed the ball for 37 minutes, 14 seconds, and seven of the Bears’ 13 possessions were six plays or more.

Rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson had two of the defense’s four interceptions, rookie defensive tackle Gervon Dexter had 1 1/2 sacks. Falcons quarterback Taylor Heinicke was forced into a miserable situation as he completed only 10 of 29 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown (a 75-yard screen to Tyler Allgeier) with three picks before leaving with an ankle injury.

That’s why in the locker room there’s a real feeling things are trending upward with the Bears one trip to Lambeau Field and a meeting with the rival Packers away from heading into what will be a pivotal offseason for general manager Ryan Poles and his staff. There is young talent that is closing the season strong. Sometimes you near the end of the schedule and first-year players encounter rookie walls. This group is trending up. No question, though some caution is required when considering the opponents the Bears have beaten:

Week 5: Washington Commanders (4-12) QB Sam Howell
Week 7: Las Vegas Raiders (7-9) QB Brian Hoyer
Week 10: Carolina Panthers (2-14) QB Bryce Young
Week 12: Minnesota Vikings (7-9) QB Josh Dobbs
Week 14: Detroit Lions (11-5) QB Jared Goff
Week 16: Arizona Cardinals (4-12) QB Kyler Murray
Week 17: Atlanta Falcons (7-9) QB Taylor Heinicke

Young, Goff and Murray might be the only three quarterbacks starting for their current teams when next season begins. The Bears are 1-4 against teams currently projected to be in the playoffs. Their last three victories have come by 15, 11 and 20 points, so they’ve soundly beaten one good team (Detroit) and two mediocre clubs. The Falcons had a shot at the playoffs, so it’s not like they were an opponent that was just playing out the string.

The energy in the Bears locker room is palpable and you get the sense this group is legitimately bonded.

“I know it’s a couple wins and all that, but I’m just saying that just to get that vibe in there of, ‘Hey, we can do this,’ that was certainly exciting for the players in there,” Eberflus said.

Maybe that’s why Moore brought a box of cigars that were set out on a table, according to Fields.

“I think it was a very important thing for us and of course we want to win every game,” Fields said. “This one was just special, New Year’s Eve, just the atmosphere. It was almost like a movie, to be honest with you. I came in the locker room after everybody, just run in there and cigars in there. I’m surprised because we had ain’t never had cigar smoke in there. I was surprised and everybody had a good time after the game. It was really fun.”

The goal, of course, is to aim higher in 2024 and the belief is the foundation — or much of it — is in place.

“We are getting closer and closer to the playoffs and I think that is everybody’s goal, really get to the playoffs,” said cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who left the game in the first half with a shoulder injury. “Get to the big dance and then reset and the season starts again after that point. We’re just getting closer and closer to that.”

Said nickel cornerback Kyler Gordon: “You’ve been seeing the slow changes that we’ve been making, defense, offense, special teams and everything is starting to click.”

Fields said he’s not a cigar enthusiast, “but of course I (fired one up) in the locker room to celebrate with the guys. You won’t catch me at home lighting up a cigar. Maybe one day.

“I know DJ is a cigar guy. One workout we had over the summer, this man pulled up in the truck with a cigar. I’m like, what? Then worked out crazy and balled out and drove off with a cigar in his mouth. I know DJ was happy to see the cigars in there for sure.”

Stevenson said he almost choked when he puffed away on a cigar.

“I put it down immediately,” he said. “Whatever it is to celebrate with these guys, I’m happy that we came together throughout the year. All the doubters, all the haters, we overcame all that. We showed the world what type of team we are and how we believe in each other.”

Veteran tight end Cole Kmet, who overcame a knee injury during the week to play in his 66th consecutive game, had a laugh about the celebration.

“Maybe a little much with the cigar smoke,” Kmet said. “But no, it’s good. I think the results are showing up. The results have been there. We’re coming together as a team. I think you can see where this is going. We’ve got some really good pieces and we have a really good team coming together. I really believe that. And I couldn’t have said that in the past.”

Hey, party like it’s 2024.

2. More momentous than an impressive dismantling of a Falcons team that has lost to Washington, Arizona and Carolina this season was the outcome of the Panthers game.

Jacksonville posted a 26-0 shutout victory over the Panthers that secured the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 draft for the Bears.

Returns on that March 10 trade by GM Ryan Poles with Carolina continue to bolster the Bears for the future. DJ Moore has turned into one of the best wide receivers in franchise history. He has 92 receptions for 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns with one game remaining. In return, the Panthers used the No. 1 pick on quarterback Bryce Young. The Bears received the No. 9 pick, which they traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, moving down one spot to select right tackle Darnell Wright. The Bears will get a fourth-round pick from the Eagles in 2024 as part of that trade.

Also secured from the Panthers in the deal was a 2023 second-round pick. The Bears moved up five spots with that pick to choose cornerback Tyrique Stevenson.

Still to come are the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft and a second-rounder from the Panthers in 2025. It’s the gift that continues to give and you cannot help but wonder if Panthers GM Scott Fitterer will wind up out of work after this season. Maybe he had an order from owner David Tepper to make the deal, but it’s been an absolute windfall for the Bears, setting up nearly four full months for draft analysis.

Bears players were either legitimately oblivious to the development or well-choreographed in playing dumb when asked about locking down the top pick, something that’s looked more and more like a sure thing since early November.

“Honestly, I didn’t know that until you told me,” cornerback Kyler Gordon said. “We’re just focused on the here and now. What’s about to happen next week.”

“Who knows what can happen?” middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said when told about the No. 1 pick. “It’s about finishing strong.”

“That’s not my job,” said cornerback Jaylon Johnson, also unaware of the good news.

“We’re not really on it like you are,” defensive end Montez Sweat said. “It’s news to me. We understand the significance of draft picks and all the stuff like that. No. 1 pick, that’s cool, whoever it is, they gotta come in here and get right with this culture.”

“For the future, where this team is headed and the momentum we have, the foundation we’re building, the camaraderie we’re building, adding top picks can only help,” tight end Robert Tonyan said. “That is beyond our job but it is cool knowing that we will have some big guys coming. The trade worked out. Poles is doing his thing. That’s why he is in that seat.”

I didn’t run into Poles after the game but I’m willing to bet he at least had a fist pump when the Panthers game ended. He told the amusing story of backing into the No. 1 pick last year when the Houston Texans pulled off a late rally to defeat the Indianapolis Colts in the season finale. Poles was pulling into his driveway at home when a neighbor yelled out congratulations. Poles said it felt a little odd to celebrate.

I’d also wager Matt Eberflus is probably proud of the way his players responded with their focus on the present.

“Really don’t give attention to it right now,” he said when asked about the significance of the draft pick. “I don’t think we’re picking tomorrow, you know what I mean? So the focus — like I said, for you to do your job the right way — is you got to be here right now, get your eyes forward for the next thing. Next thing for me is go spend some time with my wife and family tonight. I will look at the tape at the house. I got it hard-wired in. Then we will move on to the next 5:05 (a.m.) wake-up and head to the office.”

There are an array of possibilities for the Bears to consider at No. 1. They can draft a quarterback. They can trade down and get another haul. They can stay put and select a player. I will say it’s unlikely, in my estimation, they would stand pat at No. 1 and select Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. The last time a wide receiver was chosen No. 1 was Keyshawn Johnson in 1996. Before that, you have to go back to Irving Fryar in 1984. Receivers don’t go at the top of the draft class and this looks to be a terrific year for receivers, so there wouldn’t be a need to rush it.

There is MORE than enough time to dissect the possibilities, weigh the pros and cons and consider all of the options. Maybe Poles grabbed one of the cigars from the Bears locker room and fired it up when he got home to begin ruminating.

When the Bears traded the No. 1 pick last year, it was just the 13th time since the NFL/AFL merger in 1967 that the top pick was dealt and the second time since 2001. No team has traded the No. 1 pick in consecutive years.

3. With light snow falling and the wind blowing, the Bears came out with a plan.

It was to throw the ball and get Justin Fields going right away with his top target DJ Moore. It helped stake them to a quick 14-0 lead and provided a hot start to one of Fields’ best games this season.

Moore motioned to the slot and got behind Falcons safety Jessie Bates III on the first play from scrimmage for a 32-yard gain. The Bears figured Atlanta would lean heavily on its tendency to play man coverage (the Falcons used a lot more Two Man than a lot of teams) and they liked the matchup with Fields throwing to Moore. On third-and-goal from the 7-yard line on the opening possession, the Falcons were likely to be in man. Everyone plays man coverage in the low red zone. You have to.

The Bears ran a double smash route with Moore lined up as the No. 3 on a corner route. The two in-breakers opened a void on the outside third. Moore won his matchup — again against Bates — and there was no one to stop him. There was a lot of room and it was a really good throw by Fields.

“They were in what we call triangle coverage where basically the safety and the slot is outside leverage and outside is basically one-on-one,” Fields explained. “DJ just really has to beat the safety on that. Just make sure the corner outside attaches to the under route and then, boom. Line did a great job protecting on that one and great catch, great route by DJ.”

The Bears got cooking again on the next possession with another big third-down throw. Fields dropped a beauty just over Moore’s shoulder along the Atlanta sideline for a 32-yard gain on third-and-7.

“That was a crazy catch,” Fields said. “I’m not going to lie to you. He told me the same thing. He said he couldn’t even see the ball. He was tracking it and boom, it just fell in his hands. That was a circus catch right there. Any time I see DJ one-on-one, I’m most likely throwing it up. He is a hell of a player and teammate, so glad to have him here.”

On a play-action, Fields rolled out left and connected with Robert Tonyan for a 10-yard gain and on the next play, a draw, he went around the left side 9 yards for a touchdown. The Falcons, who saw kicker Younghoe Koo miss field goals in their first two possessions, were in no position to recover.

Fields made two more nifty plays and while they didn’t directly lead to points, they were notable. Facing third-and-8 from the Bears’ 35-yard line in the third quarter, he spun out of sack efforts by tackles David Onyemata and Calais Campbell and linebacker Bud Dupree, turning what looked like it would be a loss into a 13-yard gain and a first down.

It’s the kind of magic Fields can make happen with his legs a few times a game, plays that paralyze a defense when it’s in position to get off the field with a well-executed rush.

“I actually can’t tell you what happened,” Fields said. “I just felt like it was one guy, boom, another guy on me, boom. When I got out of the third tackle, I looked up and I saw green grass. Just when you’re running, just taking a peek at the first-down marker and seeing where that is, trying to convert.”

Later, he made the kind of pocket throw you want to see more of, putting a ball on the spot for streaking rookie wide receiver Tyler Scott, whose diving effort was broken up by Falcons cornerback Mike Hughes. It was a beautiful throw in the perfect spot and would have been a 33-yard touchdown on a drive that eventually ended in a Cairo Santos field goal.

“First read was DJ,” Fields said. “Didn’t like him, but I saw the safety move at the start of the play toward DJ’s side, and, you know, Tyler has got that inside release, skinny post. Didn’t connect on it, but Tyler is almost there. He has grown so much throughout the year. I texted him after the Browns game, ‘Just great,’ to say how much he’s grown as a receiver, as a player.

“I know it’s tough that we haven’t connected because we almost had a touchdown today, but it’s coming soon with him. Just going to tell him to keep working and keep grinding. That was an almost great play by Tyler.”

In six games since returning from a right thumb injury that sidelined him four games, Fields has only three interceptions but two occurred on Hail Mary efforts in the loss at Cleveland. He’s protecting the football while mixing in explosive plays in the passing game and making key plays with his running ability. The 268 yards was his third-highest total for the season and fifth-highest for his career.

He’s giving Ryan Poles, Matt Eberflus and the staff a lot to consider when the Bears look ahead to the approaching offseason, the draft and a decision on the fifth-year option in his contract. Seeing it all start to come together — the passing game in concert with the elite second-reaction plays — is what provides hope for Fields in the future.

“That’s what we’ve been searching for, right,” Eberflus said. “He has the ability to escape the pocket when it breaks down. On those critical situations, third down, two-minute, those situations we certainly want him to throw the ball on time all the time on first and second down.

“There are sometimes you’re creating because that’s the critical down, we need to get that down, he will create. Before it was mostly with his legs but now you’re starting to see him work out of the pocket and look down field and make some big strikes. The last couple weeks are a great example of that. That’s how you gut a defense and makes it really hard when you’ve got a scrambling guy like that, can move around, is very accurate on the deep passes too.”

The Soldier Field crowd erupted in cheers of “We want Fields!” and it wasn’t lost on the quarterback or his teammates.

“Yeah, I heard it,” Fields said after the final home game of the season. “It was great. Ever since the moment I got here, the fans here have been great to me, to the team. I was saying to somebody in there last year when we didn’t have a good record, they’re still showing up late in the season, cheering us on.”

He recognizes there is uncertainty about what the future holds. Nothing is guaranteed when you project ahead to 2024.

“I did,” Fields said when asked if he took a moment to take it all in. “But I always do that. I just made a big emphasis on living in the present moment. Definitely remember this game for the rest of my life, just the atmosphere, the fans, the chants, the snow.

“I don’t like snow as a quarterback, but looking back on it, it was great. Just the atmosphere, the fans, the game, playing the hometown team where I’m from (he went to high school in Kennesaw, Ga.), beating them. It was a good day.”

One game remains and the Bears seemingly always put stock in the outcome of encounters with the Packers. It’s one more chance for Fields to show his stuff and give the Bears more to consider.

“I’ve said it before I’m going to keep saying it: What makes him not the quarterback?” Moore said. “The Houdini act (on third-and-8) should’ve put the nail in the (coffin). He’s not a running back. He is him. I want him to be the quarterback.”

4. Before the start of the season, I wrote the biggest improvement the Bears could make defensively would be to see rookie defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens develop.

That was before anyone could foreshadow a trade for defensive end Montez Sweat. Development is happening with Dexter now and that’s terrific for the Bears at a position where there were major question marks.

Dexter had 1 1/2 sacks against the Falcons and he’s had at least a 1/2 sack in three of the last four games. He’s got nine quarterback hits over the last seven games and at least one in each of those games as things are beginning to click for the second-round pick from Florida.

The game is slowing down for Dexter. He’s learning — at 6-foot-6, 312 pounds — to play with more consistent leverage. He’s winning his one-on-one matchups, when they present themselves, more regularly. He’s understanding blocking concepts better to have a feel for where the opponent is, where he’s going and what he’s trying to accomplish.

“When you hit home and you know what it feels like to do it right and get that, get home and get that hit on the quarterback, it builds confidence,” Dexter said. “I’m a totally different player. My knowledge of the game, knowledge of how to rush, prepare for the game. My first couple games, I really didn’t know how to prepare up to the game and my … routine, now I am kind of consistent. I think I’m a different player for sure.”

Sure, Dexter’s ascent has matched up with the arrival of Sweat, who has transformed the front seven. But Sweat can’t make plays for Dexter and the rookie is beginning to show up with more than just occasional flashes.

Sweat had an inkling of what kind of player Dexter might turn into. When he started offseason training in Pensacola, Fla., he met Dexter at a facility where he was ramping up for the scouting combine. As they say, players know players.

“Before he got drafted, I understood he was going to be a dynamic guy,” Sweat told me. “You don’t just see big, tall guys that can move the way he does and come with that kind of strength. When I arrived, noticed he was here too, I was like, ‘(Shoot), I’m ready for that boy to blossom like a flower for real.’ It’s only a matter of time. He’s just going to keep getting better and better. Strong and he can move.”

Figuring out the interior — Pickens has had his moments too — will be an item of business in the offseason, but the Bears have to feel like Dexter is poised to make a jump forward.

“He’s been a lot better,” said a pro scout for another team. “He’s coming off the ball. He’s got some juice to him. That’s what you expect. Obviously, you want it earlier but you have to remember (at the start of the season), he was playing on a bad team. He didn’t have Sweat with him for the first half. Look how much better everyone is playing. T.J. Edwards, Tremaine Edmunds, Justin Jones, DeMarcus Walker, all of those guys are playing better. But Dexter is a young guy, how old is he? (He turned 22 in October.) He probably didn’t develop fully in college so he’s still in that developmental arc.

“He’s figuring out how to play at an NFL level, like what speed do I have to play at every level. I am sure his conditioning was an issue at the beginning of the season. He’s never had to play this hard. He’s realized he can’t do things like go back door against some guard from Vanderbilt and still make the damn play. That doesn’t work in the NFL. He’s got the traits. He’s got the size. He could be a player. I’m not saying he’s going to be an All-Pro, but he could be a really good player and he’s got juice, man. He’s coming off the ball the last few weeks, he’s being more disruptive when you watch the film and he’s being much more disruptive play to play.”

I don’t believe the Bears are surprised. Dexter certainly isn’t either.

“Those guys, (Ryan) Poles and (Coach) Flus, they kind of knew what they were getting,” Dexter said. “They scouted me. They knew and I knew who I was … so maybe to the fans that didn’t know, I always knew who I was.”

5. There was a buzz Saturday when NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported things were trending toward Matt Eberflus returning for a third season as Bears coach.

That dovetailed with what I heard early last week in chatting with folks around the league who suggested the vibe was that Eberflus indeed would be safe.

The rationale I received included a variety of reasons, beginning with improvements the young team has made this season, especially on defense, which Eberflus oversees. Sunday’s victory over the Falcons improved the Bears to 7-9, four more victories than they totaled last season. The Bears have generally been viewed as a patient organization, and the only coach in the Super Bowl era not to get a third season was Marc Trestman, who was two-and-done after 2014.

Things appear even better for Eberflus after a fifth straight home win, the fourth in the last five games overall and a 6-4 record in the last 10 games.

“Like I said many times, my eyes are forward on the corrections of this game and I really don’t pay attention to that,” Eberflus said when asked about the NFL Media report. “I’m a football coach, so I know there will be noise out there, good or bad. If you listen to either one, you’re not doing your job.

“For me, doing my job is focus on the men in that locker room and the coaches and the development of the Chicago Bears. That’s what I’m going to do.”

In discussions about what the Bears will do with Eberflus, one of the pushbacks to retaining him is the idea that if the Bears draft a quarterback in the first round — and I wouldn’t discount that possibility — are they creating a situation in which the coach is under pressure to succeed with a rookie quarterback?

That dynamic proved fateful at the end for the previous two coaches. The Bears drafted Mitch Trubisky in the first round in 2017 and fired John Fox after a 5-11 season. That forced Trubisky to learn a new system with a head coach who wasn’t involved in the decision to draft him. That coach, Matt Nagy, was fired in 2021 after Justin Fields’ rookie season and a 6-11 record. Former GM Ryan Pace also was fired, creating openings for the new regime.

There’s an alternative, though, and it’s the possibility that the current power structure — Chairman George McCaskey, President/CEO Kevin Warren and maybe most importantly GM Ryan Poles — is comfortable enough with Eberflus at this point that the coach wouldn’t enter 2024 on a win-now mandate whether the Bears are rolling with Fields or a rookie quarterback.

In that scenario, Eberflus would have more runway and it wouldn’t set up a playoffs-or-bust season.

“If you are doing things properly, which has never been done there before, you have to commit to three years of the quarterback, coach and the GM,” one league executive said. “Otherwise, you are doing the exact same thing that has been done over and over and over where you change the quarterback and then a year or two later change the coach. Or you change the coach and then you change the quarterback.

“There’s been no continuity between those positions over the last several years. If you’re going to keep Poles, fine. If you’re going to keep Eberflus, you can’t give Eberflus a new quarterback and then fire him a year later. If you fire Eberflus a year from now and have Caleb (Williams), now you’re giving that next coach the same (expletive) you gave Nagy, where he’s thinking, ‘Well, (Trubisky) isn’t my quarterback.’ Well, you took the job, so he is your quarterback.

“It’s interesting because at some point, where are these candidates going to come from? All of these head coaches that are getting fired, who are going to be the seven to 10 new head coaches you are going to hire? Now you’re hiring seven to 10 offensive coordinators to go with those guys. And there are going to be some other OCs fired, right? Look at this year. Half the league had a replacement at offensive coordinator. There were 16 new offensive coordinators. Now you’re going to do that again this year. Where the hell are these people coming from? Where are you going to find them?

“I don’t know what they’re going to do, but they can’t keep going through this cycle where it’s not aligned all the way.”

Maybe that’s a path to more time for Eberflus. All I’m saying is that inside Halas Hall, the perspective might not be that Eberflus is under pressure next season — no matter which quarterback the team has.

Asked if he has been told he will return, Eberflus stayed where his feet were.

“I’m focusing on right here, right now,” he said. “We’ll have all those conversations at the end with everybody that’s involved. Certainly excited to have those conversations.”

6. If Matt Eberflus returns, it will be interesting to see how several things shake out.

One of the first things I am curious about is whether or not he will choose to remain his own defensive coordinator.

I wonder if the experience running the defense since the departure of Alan Williams will lead Eberflus to the conclusion he’s the best man for that job. It’s more common for head coaches to serve as offensive play callers than defensive play callers, but it does happen. You can’t argue with the results as the Bears have made significant improvements in really every area, especially since the acquisition of defensive end Montez Sweat in Week 9. Eberflus rose through the ranks as a defensive coordinator, first at Missouri and then with the Indianapolis Colts — it’s in his DNA. As I’ve chatted with folks around the league throughout the season, including coaches and personnel men with teams the Bears have faced, they’ve been complimentary of the work Eberflus has done guiding the unit.

Why not roll with it? In that scenario, Eberflus would need to hire a coordinator, who would have the role in title only, and consider other moves. That could mean a promotion from within or perhaps an outside hire. Eberflus took his time finding help after Williams left, as it was a few weeks before he announced the addition of Phil Snow, 68, as a defensive analyst. How much Snow has provided remains unknown. Eberflus said he would aid in advance scouting and I’d expect the team and staff have been pretty happy with the work he’s done. Whether or not Snow is interested in full-time coaching work is unknown.

There’s also the question of what direction Eberflus would want to go on offense whether the team is keeping quarterback Justin Fields, which seems unlikely to me, or looking to replace him with a first-round draft pick. Eberflus has backed coordinator Luke Getsy recently, but his actions after the season will be a lot more telling than words in Week 17.

Given a second hire in the secondary, Eberflus made a significant upgrade when he added Jon Hoke as passing game coordinator/cornerbacks coach, replacing James Rowe, who left late last season to go to South Florida. Given that it was a lateral move to a non-Power Five school, that led me to believe Rowe was encouraged to depart. The upshot is Hoke, in his second stint as an assistant for the Bears, has been excellent with rookie cornerbacks Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith and the group as a whole.

Because a lot of times rookies don’t know what they don’t know, I asked veteran Jaylon Johnson about Hoke’s impact.

“He just pushes us each and every day,” Johnson said. “He’s been consistent. He brings a certain level of expectation to the room in terms of what we’re being asked to do and being demanding to do it. He acknowledges that it is hard, that he’s asking a lot but he still continues to push us in that way. That’s how he’s been from Day 1. His biggest thing is details and really just pushing us to be great whether it’s in coverage, run, physicality, whatever it is. He pushes us to be great.”

Hoke’s players in the past have echoed a common sentiment that he’s very tough on them.

“100%,” Johnson said. “That’s just him. He is a tough guy. He demands a lot out of his players and I feel like depending who the player is, you respond or you fold. For me, just being able to respond, just being able to build a relationship and have an understanding of what it is he wants and being able to go out and perform.”

If given the opportunity to make additional staff hires, perhaps Eberflus can have similar success. It’s been a long time since Lovie Smith was running the Bears, but he made some tactical moves with his coaching staff that upgraded it pretty quickly. Maybe Eberflus can do the same.

7. The Atlanta Falcons came to Soldier Field with a roster that included familiar faces.

Defensive tackle LaCale London, running back Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end MyCole Pruitt are on their roster. The coaching staff includes Dave Ragone, Michael Pitre and Mike Snyder. Of course, former Bears GM Ryan Pace landed in Atlanta in 2022 and was promoted to director of player personnel over the summer.

Two of the Bears better players this season — cornerback Jaylon Johnson and tight end Cole Kmet — were second-round picks by Pace and his staff in 2020. The roster has turned over significantly in nearly two seasons since Pace was in charge and 11 players remain who were originally acquired by him. There’s a 12th if you count practice squad wide receiver Nsimba Webster, who joined the team originally in 2021 and has bounced around.

That’s not unusual turnover. New GMs generally inherit rosters that need a significant makeover and are often filled with older players. That was the case with the Bears. When you factor in scheme changes that come with a new coaching staff on both sides of the ball, the roster churns at a faster rate and before you know it, the locker room is full of almost completely new faces.

I chatted with a former member of Pace’s staff to ask about what impact — if any — remained from his seven-season tenure, which included one winning year in 2018. He began the conversation talking about player acquisitions — some that worked, some that did not — and then pointed to the massive renovation of Halas Hall and the addition of two more practice fields behind the Walter Payton Center that the club credited Pace with being the driving force behind.

“That’s a big deal, a major deal,” said the former staff member. “I don’t think (George McCaskey and Ted Phillips) would have done it on their own. They were remodeling (Halas Hall) not long before Pace arrived in 2013. It was embarrassing before that (remodel) but it was good enough after. Now? It’s significantly better.

“I am sure Pace was behind (the remodel that began in 2018) and had a lot to do with the design and everything. That’s a big deal. When Pace got there, there was no emphasis on the nutritional component. He elevated the areas of nutrition, sports science, mental performance, those things were taken to another level. Even the strength staff and how that group evolved from what it was prior. I do think he was given way more resources than Phil Emery had to do those things. I don’t think it was something Phil was neglecting to do.

“Pace was able to somehow, whether it was leverage or being a nice guy, he was able to get the McCaskeys to invest more money in the soft things like the facility and the support staff areas. To be able to convince ownership to invest more in things that no one outside the organization really sees or feels, I think that is a skill and deserves to be commended because a lot of people can’t convince their owners to spend money in those areas. That’s probably what he did most for the organization that the current regime is benefiting from.”

8. The NFL did monster television ratings on Christmas with a tripleheader: Raiders at Chiefs, Giants at Eagles and Ravens at 49ers.

The Las Vegas Raiders’ upset win had an average audience of 29 million viewers on CBS, the most-watched Christmas Day game in 34 years. The nightcap, when Baltimore rolled San Francisco in a battle of 11-win teams, had an audience of more than 27 million viewers, the second-largest number for a “Monday Night Football” game in 27 years.

Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported the NFL currently has no plans to play games on Christmas when the holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Wednesday (Christmas is on a Wednesday in 2024). And Florio isn’t buying it, saying he believes the league’s takeover of television viewers on a day previously dominated by the NBA isn’t something NFL owners will want to cede — even temporarily.

It would create a game of Twister when it comes to scheduling late-season games.

“I don’t know, man,” offensive lineman Dan Feeney said with a chuckle when I asked about the possibility of playing on a Wednesday. “We play Thursday nights so … I could see it for the ratings, but I don’t know. It’s very hard on the body.”

Feeney suggested teams playing on a Wednesday could have a Saturday game the week before, something that would provide the same timeline players have in the quick turnaround from Sundays to Thursdays. The question is what happens on the back end of a Wednesday game? When do they play again? They could play the next Monday — providing one more day of rest than teams get from Sunday to Thursday — but three games in 10 days (Saturday-Wednesday-Monday) could be a competitive disadvantage and frankly doesn’t sound doable. For starters, a Christmas Day game would fall in Week 17 and there is not a Monday game in Week 18 (or there hasn’t been to this point). Any kind of plan would likely require more outside-the-box thinking.

The league played on a Wednesday not long ago. A Week 12 game in 2020 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens was moved to Wednesday, Dec. 2, because of COVID-19. The Steelers played the following week on a Monday. The Ravens’ next game came on a Tuesday. In 2021, still impacted by COVID-19, two Week 15 games were moved to a Tuesday.

“At this point in my career, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things, especially playing through COVID and stuff,” right guard Nate Davis said. “I was on that Titans team that played on a Tuesday and we had to turn around and play on Sunday. I wouldn’t put it past the league to do. But at the end of the day, it’s out of our control.

“They’d have to figure out a way to schedule it. I wouldn’t say no (to a Christmas game happening in 2024). There’s two sides to it. Obviously, Christmas, you want to be with your family. But this is our job. If you have to do it, you go out and do it as long as there is adequate time off on both sides.”

If the NFL doesn’t play games on Christmas next season, surely the league will return to the date in the near future. In 2025, Dec. 25 falls on a Thursday. It’s on a Friday in 2026 and Saturday in 2027. No scheduling gymnastics will be required to fill those dates with as many games as the league desires.

9. For a moment it looked like Dee Alford would cement his name in the NFL record books with a 109-yard touchdown.

You can’t have a longer score than that and it’s only been done three times in league history, most recently when Jacksonville’s Jamal Agnew returned a missed field goal for a touchdown in 2021.

Alford caught a 55-yard field goal attempt by Cairo Santos 9 yards deep in the north end zone on the final play of the second quarter and found some space along the Atlanta sideline, weaving 96 yards before he was eventually tackled by center Lucas Patrick, who is on the field goal team.

There were shades of Nathan Vasher and Devin Hester, who returned missed field goals for touchdowns in 2005 and 2006, respectively, each 108 yards.

It was a desperation try for a field goal on the windy day, within what Matt Eberflus said was the “monster line” to kick.

“The thing is the wind was switching end zones all day,” Santos told me. “Sometimes it felt like that way (kicking to the north), we could have had the wind at our back. When I went out to the field on that 55, it switched straight in my face. I tried to communicate with (special teams coordinator Richard) Hightower and we just couldn’t get it.”

“That’s exactly why we didn’t kick (at the end of the first half) in Cleveland. We knew it was in our face. We knew it was going to come short. This time, we felt like we could have had a chance.

“When (Alford) got to the left side and across the 50, I didn’t see anyone … at one point, he felt my presence and he turned around and I think that’s when he ran into Lucas and Bobby (Tonyan). Just great pursuit by those guys to save a touchdown.”

“It was a lot of running,” Tonyan said. “I dove and I got a hand on him. I didn’t know I got him down and then I got smoked by two people. That’s a momentum-changing play. I know we get the ball to start the second half but still going into halftime — we’re all in here exhausted, laying on the floor. It’s different if they score. We would feel it.

“(Hightower) puts us through that scenario every week in practice. It’s tough, seven linemen, two tight ends, a kicker and a punter. It’s a tough spot. It was a great kick by Cairo. Into the wind, into the snow. He still drove it pretty well. Thank god they didn’t score.”

Santos wound up making field goals from 22, 42 and 42 yards and is now 32 for 35 (91.4%) for the season. If he finishes at 90% or above, he triggers a $500,000 bonus in his contract. That means he’s probably has to be perfect at Lambeau Field because my hunch is the clause calls for Santos to be 90% without rounding up.

10. With the victory, the Bears’ own first-round pick would be No. 10 overall based on current standings.

This is according to Matt Hoover, who runs tankathon.com. Hoover told me that with a win over the Packers, the Bears could potentially drop as low as No. 13, depending on other outcomes. With a loss at Green Bay, the Bears could pick as high as No. 8, requiring wins by Atlanta (at New Orleans) and the New York Jets (at New England).

10a. We’re a week away from knowing precisely who will be on the Bears schedule in 2024. Three games will be determined by the standings. The Bears will host the corresponding finishers in the NFC South and AFC East and play a road game at the like finisher in the NFC East.

At 7-9, the Bears are tied with the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North, although the league website has Minnesota in third place based on record against common opponents. The Vikings will close out the season at Detroit. Obviously, a lot can change if the Bears are third or fourth in the division, and the Packers (8-8) are only one game ahead of Minnesota and the Bears with more tiebreakers potentially being required.

Here are the home opponents that are not the traditional NFC North rivals. The Bears will play host games against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans. They will have road games at the Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers.

As far as the TBD opponents, here are the current standings in the three divisions worth knowing:

NFC South: Tampa Bay (8-8), New Orleans (8-8), Atlanta (7-9), Carolina (2-14)
AFC East: Miami (11-5), Buffalo (10-6), New York Jets (6-10), New England Patriots (4-12)
NFC East: Dallas (11-5), Philadelphia (11-5), New York Giants (5-11), Washington (4-12)

10b. Pro Bowl Games rosters will be announced Wednesday and the Bears have a small handful of players who should have a chance and could do well in voting by coaches and players. They each get 1/3 of the vote, with the fan vote also counting 1/3. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson, wide receiver DJ Moore, defensive end Montez Sweat have all played well enough to be deserving of selection. If the Bears had won more, I would think weak-side linebacker T.J. Edwards probably would get more attention. Kicker Cairo Santos has had a tremendous season, but it’s hard to argue against Dallas’ Brandon Aubrey, who is 35 for 35 on field goals.

10c. Tight end Cole Kmet said a pregame warmup with a knee injury made him feel comfortable run blocking, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do a lot in the passing game. He said he was hopeful the Green Bay game would be on Sunday (it is), giving him an extra day to heal instead of playing on Saturday.

10d. Congratulations to Bryan Pett, the team’s stadium operations director, who is retiring in February after 34 years with the club. The Bears had a tribute to Pett on the video board before the game. He’s always been a classy representative of the organization, eager to help and share a kind word. Pett did a lot more for the team than just work at the stadium. He was a friendly face to run into at training camp. Best of luck in retirement.

10e. The Packers opened as a 1 1/2-point favorite over the Bears for Sunday’s season finale at Lambeau Field.

10f. Happy New Year!


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