Bears take care of business in Buffalo with critical NFC North stretch looming

USA Today

Bears take care of business in Buffalo with critical NFC North stretch looming

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Now the real fun begins. 

The Bears took care of business with a 41-9 laugher over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at New Era Field, upping their NFC North-leading record to 5-3 at the halfway point of the 2018 season. With that record will come a string of three critical games in 12 days, starting with next week’s home date with the Detroit Lions. After that, the Minnesota Vikings come to town, then the Bears head to Michigan for a Thanksgiving date with the Lions. 

How the Bears fare in that three-game stretch could tee them up for a legitimate run at the playoffs, or force them into a difficult position come December. 

The Bears did what they needed to do against the New York Jets and the Bills, beating two teams over which they had a significant talent advantage by a combined 36 points. Leonard Floyd had a pick-six and Eddie Jackson forced a fumble and returned it 65 yards for defensive touchdowns, while Mitch Trubisky largely took what the Bills’ defense gave him and Jordan Howard plowed in for two scores himself. This was a game that was over at halftime, with the only drama in the second half revolving around how much worse things could get for Nathan Peterman and the woebegone Bills’ offense.  

That being said, it wasn’t an entirely clean game. The Bears committed 14 penalties for 129 yards and Trubisky sailed a throw over an open Trey Burton that was picked off in the second half, for starters, and an offensive line missing Kyle Long struggled to create room for Howard all game. But it was a more than good enough effort to handily beat one of the worst teams in the NFL, quarterbacked by the worst quarterback in the NFL. 

The challenges will be greater in the Bears’ next three games, though the potential of the returns of outside linebacker Khalil Mack and wide receiver Allen Robinson — both of whom were inactive the last two games — would buoy this team’s hopes. The Bears are 3-16 against the NFC North since the beginning of 2015, and last were .500 against the division in 2012. It’s been eight years since the Bears won more games against division opponents than they lost, which not coincidentally was the last time this franchise made the playoffs. 

The scenarios are tantalizing for the Bears if they were to win two or three games this Lions-Vikings-Lions sandwich. Emerge with seven or eight wins and then take care of business against the New York Giants and a difficult December (vs. the Los Angeles Rams, vs. Green Bay, at San Francisco, at Minnesota) looks manageable for the Bears to navigate into the postseason. 

But for that stretch to be meaningful, the Bears had to handle the Jets and Bills. They did just that. 

And again: Now the real fun begins. 

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Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.