With just four games left in what has been a disastrous season for the Chicago Bears, there is still much to learn about this 3-9 team.
The Bears will look to string together back-to-back wins for the first team in more than a calendar year, going on the road this week to face the first place Detroit Lions, who have surprised everyone.
This final stretch of the season should provide a small glimpse into the future for Bears fans, as they will get a chance to see fringe roster players in a more prominent role.
Here are five things to watch for as the Bears head into Ford Field.
What better way to kick off the festivities than talking about Matt Barkley? Two weeks ago this may have been a sore subject but for the second straight week, the fourth-year quarterback was impressive.
Yes, Barkley only threw for 192 yards and no touchdowns but he only threw the ball 18 times - the Bears leaned on the run game heavily against the 49ers - and only 11 of those were completions. Once again, Chicago receivers had their fair share of drops, further skewing Barkley's final numbers.
The former USC Trojan had some very nice throws in snowy conditions, passes that would have been impressive even in early September.
I’m nowhere near ready to crown him the future signal caller in the Windy City but Barkley's progress is worth monitoring moving forward, as he could push himself to the front of the line for the primary backup role in 2017.
This position could get awfully interesting down the stretch for a secondary that has struggled for consistency all season.
Not only are Kyle Fuller and promising fourth-round rookie Deiondre Hall expected back Sunday but the Bears this week also claimed former second-round CB Johnthan Banks off waivers and are looking to rejuvenate his career as he goes into free agency.
On top of those three cornerbacks being thrown into the mix, Bryce Callahan had a nice bounce-back game and Tracy Porter remains banged up.
Chicago's front office will likely be spending multiple resources into the cornerback position this off-season, looking to upgrade its starters, but depth will also be key, which keeps this group at the top of the list of things to watch this Sunday.
The biggest key for the Bears’ defense going into the off-season will be the status of their front seven, namely their pass rush corps.
Due to injuries and mixed results, this is a very important group to closely monitor the rest of the season. First-round rookie OLB Leonard Floyd has 7.0 sacks in nine games this year and looks to be hitting his stride but veteran Pernell McPhee has had only sporadic success since returning from his off-season knee surgery last month.
Injuries along the defensive line have been problematic but that has not stopped Akiem Hicks from emerging as a valuable piece for the team in 2017. Eddie Goldman has been stout when healthy and Cornelius Washington has flashed but Hicks, who has a career-high 6.0 sacks, has been the only constant up front, which could earn him his first Pro Bowl berth.
Rookie Jonathan Bullard was a healthy scratch Sunday but figures to jump back in this coming Sunday. The coaching staff is hoping last week's benching can be the wake up call Bullard needs to be more productive down the stretch.
Overall, the Bears simply need to find some clarity and see more development out of their pass rushers down the stretch.
Offensive Play Calling
This has been an issue almost each week under new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. In tough, snowy weather conditions last week, Loggains finally committed to the run game, rushing 40 times for 142 yards against the 49ers.
That commitment to the ground game must continue down the stretch, as Jordan Howard is by far Chicago's best offensive player on the field. With an inexperienced quarterback and a lack of reliable receivers, Loggains will once again need to lean on Howard and the run game if the Bears have any chance of pulling off the road upset.
Even looking forward to next year, the Bears will need to use this same ground-and-pound philosophy on offense, as they’ll likely have a new quarterback under center and there’s a strong chance it will be a rookie.
Week 13 was a highly rewarding product from the team’s most recent draft class. Howard continued his impressive rookie season with another 100 yard game, his fifth of the year, and three touchdowns. Floyd added another 2.0 sacks to his resume, along with his first career safety. C Cody Whitehair continues to grow, ILB Nick Kwiatkoski has been solid as a starter and S Deon Bush looks to be improving.
GM Ryan Pace’s draft classes must quickly pan out if he's going to last long in Chicago. With players finally starting to get healthy and comfortable in the system, the early returns on both classes look promising.
As the Bears move into the third year of a full-fledged rebuild, Pace will look back and reference the growth from his younger players, especially the rookies, to clearly identify the weak spots on the roster.
A Few Thoughts
-Will Kyle Fuller finally be activated this Sunday? Only time will tell but these are a crucial last four games in terms of his future in Chicago.
-The Bears are currently tied with the Jets at 3-9, with identical strength-of-schedule marks. A coin flip would decide draft positioning between the two teams if both lose out, but it's worth noting the Jets do play the 1-11 49ers this weekend.
-Reports this week that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio may be leaving after the 2016 season were surprising, and disappointing, to say the least. Both Fangio and head coach John Fox denied the rumors but what else are they really going to say?