The Bears and Cowboys are reigning division champions with matching 6-6 records, and only Dallas still has a viable opportunity to repeat in the lowly NFC East as it arrives at Soldier Field Thursday night. Yet these might be clubs heading in opposite directions.
Minnesota’s loss in Seattle Monday night concluded a Week 13 that began with a Bears’ win in Detroit and went almost entirely their way: Cowboys, Eagles and Panthers also lost, with only the L.A. Rams holding serve to get to 7-5, but facing a remaining schedule only slightly less daunting than Chicago’s.
Matt Nagy’s Bears still have to bypass the Rams, but are within two games of the Vikings, whom they’ve never lost to and will visit in the regular-season finale, potentially with the conference’s final wild card hanging in the balance.
And while Chicago has won three of its past four, Dallas is the inverse at 1-3, with Jason Garrett’s seat now scorching while Nagy perhaps slowly rediscovers his footing. Of course, playing in a far superior division, the Bears have little remaining margin for error.
Bears defense vs. Cowboys offense: Dallas’ top-rated offense and passing attack should pose the biggest challenge to date for a Bears “D” that must weather Akiem Hicks’ absence one more week – even if the Cowboys’ big-strike prowess has mostly struck out over the past month. Dak Prescott and Co. are averaging only 20.8 points a game and 6.2 yards a play in that span, down from their season averages of 25.8 and 6.5, respectively.
Amid a career year, Prescott struggled mightily in the Thanksgiving defeat vs. the Buffalo Bills, who sacked the NFL passing leader a season-high four times and took the ball away from him twice.
The Bears will need a similar effort from Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller and Co., but not before ensuring Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t beat them coming off one of his finer performances this season.
Can an uneven Bears pass rush exploit a Cowboys O-line not playing up to its usual standards and sending starting LG Connor Williams to injured reserve this week? Roy Robertson-Harris against Williams replacement Xavier Sua-Filo will be a key matchup, as will the blue chipper Mack battling OTs Tyron Smith and La’el Collins.
“They have weapons everywhere, a great offensive line. I think Dak’s playing at a very high level,” Nagy said. “You’re always going to have your highs and lows throughout a season. Amari playing the way he’s playing, and then Ezekiel at running back. They have weapons. They can score at any time. They’re aggressive. So, whatever they’re going through the last couple weeks, we know we’re going to get their best shot.”
In addition to Cooper, WR2 Michael Gallup has game-changing ability, and old nemesis Randall Cobb has created his share of nightmares for the Bears. Fuller and Buster Skrine have been great, but Chicago may have to weather Prince Amukamara’s absence for the first time this season.
Bears offense vs. Cowboys defense
Fresh off their highest yardage output of the season and best third-down success in months in Detroit, Mitch Trubisky’s offense gets a significant step up in class from the Lions’ 29th-ranked third-down “D” to Dallas (No. 3 in the NFL).
The Bears’ O-line must play its best game vs. a Cowboys front without a clear weakness, even sans 2018 rookie second-team All Pro LB Leighton Vander Esch. Bears coaches lavished praise on an “elite” D-line that creates pressure with four rushers at the highest rate in the NFL. The arrival via trade of Robert Quinn (team-high 9.5 sacks) and Michael Bennett (3 sacks in 5 games with the Cowboys) makes doubling Demarcus Lawrence a nonstarter; the interior presence of disruptive Maliek Collins further raises the onus on the entire front five building on its strong Thanksgiving.
“These guys are elite, elite, elite in [pressuring quarterbacks] and it goes back to, again, just find a No. 1 in rhythm and on time,” OC Mark Helfrich said. “Every O-line gets beat by these guys, every quarterback gets sacked by these guys, gets hit by these guys and you have to weather that storm. You have to step up and get it out, you have to step up and run. ... And just execute.”
While not quite as imposing, a Byron Jones-led secondary also boasts playmakers despite being mired in a four-game takeaway drought. Four of Trubisky’s seven interceptions this season have come in the past three games – including one Thursday – but it was the way he responded in the Bears’ go-ahead and game-winning TD drives each exceeding 90 yards that has his and WR2 Anthony Miller’s confidence peaking.
Special Teams: Neither club trusts its kicker. The Cowboys worked out legs this week following two more Brett Maher misses; Nagy eschewed Eddy Pineiro indoors to attempt a 48-yarder on fourth-and-6. But the Bears have a huge advantage covering and returning kicks, most recently with Cordarrelle Patterson catalyzing their first game-opening TD drive since Week 4 with a 57-yard return.
Coaching: It hasn’t been a good season for either former Coach of the Year, but Nagy at least has the backing of ownership and an arrow still pointing up, unlike Garrett, whose team was blown out at home on Thanksgiving after he was publicly called out by Jerry Jones in Foxboro.