The NFC North meets the AFC South this Sunday when the Chicago Bears host the Houston Texans at Soldier Field in Week 14's early slate of games. Both teams come into this game heading in different directions. The Bears (5-7) have lost six in a row, and their playoff hopes are pretty much gone, or hanging on life support at the very least. The Texans (4-8), however, have won three of their last five and have shown improvement during that stretch after firing head coach/general manager Bill O'Brien back in early October. Chicago hopes to make one last desperate postseason push, while Houston looks to add another L to the Bears' slide.
Houston at Chicago
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Texans -1.5
Three Things to Watch
Can the Bears finally end their misery?
The opportunity is definitely there, they just have to take advantage of it. They take the field against a Texans team that's playing with an interim head coach and seems headed for a rebuilt of some fashion this offseason. It's also a team that ranks 16th in total offense (364.3 ypg) and has the league's third-worst total defense (406.3 ypg). At the same time, the Texans have been playing with a chip on their shoulder and it's worked for the most part (more on that later).
For Chicago, not only was last week's 34-30 home loss to the Lions the most embarrassing of the season, it may very well be the worst of Matt Nagy's tenure as head coach. The Bears had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and the game seemed firmly in-hand. But mistakes on both sides of the ball allowed Detroit to score 14 points in 41 seconds to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Questionable play-calling became an issue again, and the once-mighty Bears defense showed more signs of breaking down.
Injuries continue to hit Chicago, and the defense could be without linebacker Khalil Mack. He's missed practice all week with a shoulder injury. Akiem Hicks has fully practiced this week, but can he be effective on game day? He only posted two tackles against Detroit last week in his return from a pulled hamstring. Bottom line, the Bears need to break this six-game losing streak if they want to have even a remote chance at sneaking into the playoffs.
2. What's left for Houston to play for?
The Texans know they aren't going to the playoffs and they also know that wholesale changes are coming to the team and franchise after Bill O'Brien was fired four games into this season. But give credit to this team for not completely throwing in the towel.
The Texans are 3-2 over their last five games under interim head coach Romeo Crennel. Including in that stretch is a satisfying win over New England and a road rout of Detroit on Thanksgiving that resulted in the Lions firing their head coach and general manager. And the losses to Cleveland and Indianapolis came by a total of nine points. Last week, Houston trailed the Colts 26-20 but had the ball deep in the red zone with 1:28 left on the clock. But on second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Deshaun Watson fumbled the snap, which Indianapolis recovered to secure the victory.
Overall, the Texans have gone 4-4 under Crennel, showing no signs they are going to mail in the rest of their games. They aren't even playing for draft positioning, as Miami owns Houston's first- and second-round picks next year from the Aug. 2019 trade that brought over left tackle Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills (who is no longer even on the team). Instead, the Texans seem perfectly content with giving it their all every game and it's no stretch to say that right now they are playing much better than the Bears. Chicago is still within striking distance of getting one of the wild-card spots in the NFC but only if it can find a way to snap this losing streak. The Texans have no intention of allowing that on Sunday.
3. 2017 NFL Draft revisited
This could be the quarterback matchup on Sunday. Nick Foles has missed the last two games because of a hip pointer, but he has returned to practice recently. Most likely, Mitchell Trubisky will get another start but either way, the comparisons between him and Deshaun Watson are unavoidable. Both were taken in the first round of the 2017 draft, Chicago trading up one spot to get Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick and Houston later trading up to grab Watson with the 12th pick. Bears fans have wanted a do-over of that decision by general manager Ryan Pace, especially when you consider that Patrick Mahomes (10th to Kansas City) was also in that draft.
Four seasons into Trubisky's and Watson's careers, and there simply is no comparison. Watson has better numbers (13,258 passing yards, 1,564 rushing yards, 112 total touchdowns, 103.2 passer rating) than Trubisky (9,623, 968, 65, 86.1), and he's enjoyed better team success. With Watson at the helm, the Texans have won two division titles (2018, '19) and made three playoff appearances. The Bears won the NFC North in 2018, the only year they have been in the playoffs with Trubisky. Watson also clearly passes the eye test when you look at the two signal-callers, as he has become one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterbacks despite tearing his ACL seven games into his rookie season.
Whatever changes Houston makes this offseason, Watson is going nowhere. After picking up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, the Texans signed Watson to a four-year, $177.5 million contract extension before the start of the season. Chicago declined Trubisky's option earlier this year so he could be playing his final games in a Bears uniform. Can he come through for them on Sunday or will Watson give fans another reason to wish for what might have been?
The Bears have never defeated the Texans (0-4 all-time). In fact, Houston has outscored Chicago 91-49 in those meetings. The Bears are winless against the AFC South this season (0-2, outscored 43-28), and have dropped their last seven overall to teams from the division.
The Texans won their last game against an NFC North opponent two weeks ago, when they defeated the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. But what really matters is that Houston has Deshaun Watson at quarterback. He'll show on Sunday why the Bears should have picked him over Mitchell Trubisky back in 2017.
Prediction: Texans 24, Bears 20
— 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.