Bears look to avoid a letdown out on the West Coast against the surging 49ers
The Chicago Bears take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday with their NFC North title in tow but there's still work left to be done. With two games left in the regular season, the Bears (10-4) still have a shot at securing a first-round bye. To do that, they have to take care of business on the West Coast against the 49ers.
San Francisco (4-10) has won two in a row, putting a dent in the playoff aspirations of Denver and Seattle in the process. Chicago also has won two in a row and seven of its last eight but no victory was sweeter than last Sunday’s over Green Bay.
Not only have the Bears been celebrating their first division title since 2010, but five players found out on Tuesday night that they have been invited to participate in the Pro Bowl.
Everything is seemingly going Chicago’s way right now, but West Coast trips can be tricky for visiting teams. Can the Bears refocus and take care of a team that they should beat or will the 49ers make it three upsets in a row?
Chicago at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 23 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Bears -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Bears’ recent struggles against the 49ers
The records are mirror images, but that doesn’t mean Chicago can just expect to waltz into Levi’s Stadium and walk away with an easy win. Since 1989 the Bears have gone 6-9 against the 49ers, including playoffs, getting outscored 360-214 in those games. Last season, San Francisco won in Chicago 15-14 on a last-second field goal. So don’t let the records fool you, the 49ers have had the Bears’ number recently and sometimes history is as tough to beat as the team on the other sideline.
2. Nick Mullens has steadied the 49ers’ ship
Thrown into the fire as a result of an injury and ineffective backup, Mullens has been one of the few bright spots for San Francisco this season. The undrafted free agent from Southern Miss has started the last six games, replacing C.J. Beathard who in turn replaced an injured Jimmy Garoppolo.
Instead of having Garoppolo, their $137 million man under center, the 49ers have had to rely on the 23-year-old who hadn’t even taken an NFL snap prior to this season. Since making his first start in Week 9, Mullens has led San Francisco to a 3-3 record, including back-to-back wins over Denver and Seattle.
On the season, Mullens has thrown for 1,754 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has completed 64 percent of his passes while posting a 96.0 passer rating. Mullens has faced some tough defenses, namely Seattle (twice) and Denver, but the Bears will present a new challenge for him. Chicago leads the league in takeaways (35) and interceptions (26), and is tied for fourth in sacks with 45. Pass protection will certainly be a concern for Mullens, who has been sacked 13 times in the last four games.
3. Bears staying a little more grounded
In their last three games, Chicago has put a little more emphasis on running the ball. Matt Nagy’s offense gets most of its work done through the air, but recent results on the ground have been encouraging. Against the Giants, Rams and Packers the Bears have totaled 412 rushing yards with two touchdowns. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen have combined for 360 of those yards with Howard posting his first 100-yard game of the season in the big Week 14 win over Los Angeles.
Nagy also hasn’t been afraid to get others in on the act. Pro Bowl defensive end Akiem Hicks had a one-yard TD “run” in Week 13 against the Giants. In a nod to former Bear great William “Refrigerator” Perry, Hicks has been nicknamed “The Freezer” for his contribution on offense.
Even though the Bears haven’t defeated the 49ers on their home field since 2014, and despite the fact they’re 3-3 away from Soldier Field this year this is a much different team than the last few that have gone matched up with San Francisco. Chicago comes to Levi’s Stadium with the NFL’s sixth-ranked offense and third-ranked defense. The offense has shown better balance in recent weeks while the defense continues to wreak havoc. Nick Mullens has been a pleasant surprise for the injury-ravaged 49ers, but the Bears have too much talent on both sides of the ball to contend with.
Prediction: Bears 28, 49ers 17
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.