No one is putting playoffs and Chicago Bears in the same sentence, but they could finish with a respectable record for the first time in four season, when they went 8-8 in Marc Trestman's first year.
When John Fox's 3-5 Bears return from their bye week, they'll face a much easier schedule in the second half of the season than they encountered in the first half. In their final eight games, the Bears get the league's only two 0-8 teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns, at home. Their first two games after the break are also at home, against the 4-3 Green Bay Packers without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the 3-4 Detroit Lions.
Their four road games are against the 7-1 Philadelphia Eagles, the 3-4 Cincinnati Bengals, the Lions, and the 6-2 Minnesota Vikings in the season finale.
So 8-8 is possible, but the Bears must make sure a few of the following things happen in the final eight weeks.
1. Unshackle Trubisky
The rookie quarterback has earned an elevated level of trust after starting four games, so it's time to take the training wheels off.
The Bears are 2-2 in games Mitch Trubisky has started, and in those two victories he threw a combined 23 passes, but he also had his two highest passer ratings -- 84.0 and 101.8. The Bears scored a total of only 23 points in those games, though.
In the two losses, Trubisky threw 57 passes, but the Bears scored 29 points, although he recorded passer ratings of just 60.1 and 46.9.
Still, the Bears did not draft Trubisky second overall to be a game manager, even as a rookie. After a week of intense self-scouting during the bye, the coaching staff knows which plays work best for Trubisky -- play action and throwing on the move. A steady diet of those will allow Trubisky to become the playmaker Bears general manager Ryan Pace and his scouting staff envisioned on Draft Day.
2. Give the ball to Howard
Nothing will make Trubisky's play-action passing more effective than the threat of Jordan Howard's running.
Howard averaged 20 carries per game in the first half of the season, and he needs to maintain that workload. He had more than 20 carries in each of the three victories, and fewer than 20 carries in four of the five losses.
Rookie Tarik Cohen can be an ideal complement to Howard, and he has more big-play potential. The use of Cohen, however, should not come at the expense of Howard, who needs 20-plus touches per game to keep defenses honest and make Trubisky's life easier and his passing more productive.
In the six games the Bears have won since the start of the 2016 season, Howard has averaged 125.5 yards per game, and he has had more than 110 yards in five of the victories.
3. Establish a trusted receiver
The top three options in the Bears' passing attack are all on injured reserve -- wide receivers Cam Meredith and Kevin White, and tight end Zach Miller.
Now that he has been in the system for two weeks, after being acquired in trade from the Los Angeles Chargers, Dontrelle Inman is an interesting possibility. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Inman became lost in the shuffle with the Chargers behind Keenan Allen and first-round pick Mike Williams.
But last season he caught 58 passes for 810 yards, a 14.0-yard average and 4 touchdowns, a far more impressive resume than any Bears receiver with the exception of Kendall Wright.
Wright has 22 catches for 259 yards (11.8-yard average), and he and Trubisky seem to have some rapport. This 5-foot-10, 191-pound veteran, however, is best in the slot as a No. 3 or No. 4 option.
Tre McBride, who spent most of his first two seasons on the Tennessee Titans' practice squad, flashed potential in Week Eight with 3 catches for 92 yards in a breakout game.
The Bears don't need a Pro Bowler to emerge, but a trustworthy, security-blanket type for Trubisky would be nice.
4. Hicks must dominate
It has been four years since the Bears had a Pro Bowl defender (cornerback Tim Jennings in 2013), but Hicks has been playing at that level for a year and a half.
The 6-foot-5, 336-pound Hicks is outdoing himself after his breakout in 2016, when he had a career-best 71 tackles, by far the most of any Bears defensive lineman, and a career-best 7 sacks. Hicks is even better and more dominant this season. He has already matched his sack total from 2016 and is again an iron man, playing almost as many snaps as last season, when he was on the field 86.6 percent of the time.
The Bears' defense is No. 8 in total yards allowed and No. 9 in sacks, and Hicks is the biggest reason for both.
5. Hicks needs some help
Maybe it will come from second-year outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who is second on the team to Hicks with 5 sacks and has 9 quarterback hits, also 2 fewer than Hicks' team-best 11.
Maybe it'll come from nose tackle Eddie Goldman. His ability to occupy blockers in the middle works in concert with Hicks' havoc-wreaking at end in the team's base 3-4. In nickel, Hicks and Goldman can push the pocket inside as Floyd and Pernell McPhee attack from the flanks.
If Danny Trevathan can stay healthy, he is a tackling machine who could clean up on the second level playing behind Hicks and Goldman, and he makes plays in pass defense and as a pass rusher. Another possibility is cornerback Kyle Fuller, who is playing the best football of his four-year career.
6. Force more turnovers
After a two-year-and-five-game drought, the Bears have accumulated 8 take-aways in their past three games, and they've returned 3 of them for touchdowns -- each at least 75 yards.
The coast-to-coast TD returns likely won't continue, but the turnovers are the residual effect of improved defensive play, especially in the pass-rush department.
Last year's team had just 11 take-aways all year, but this year's group has equaled that number after getting only 3 in the first five games.
There is still room for improvement. The Bears intercepted just 8 passes in each of the previous two seasons, and they're on the same pace this year with 4.
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