After hibernating during the offseason and getting through the grind of the preseason, football is back! And Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season features a matchup of two teams that have become very familiar with one another in recent years.
As the Chicago Bears look to become a winning franchise again, they start the year by hosting a San Francisco 49ers squad that's looking for its third playoff appearance in the last four years.
Both teams were the subject of many offseason storylines, but now they look to put those in the rearview mirror and get the new season started.
San Francisco (0-0) at Chicago (0-0)
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterbacks take center stage
This game will be highlighted by last year's 11th overall draft pick, Justin Fields, taking on last year's third overall selection, Trey Lance. As rookies last year, we heard about their upside, and now is their chance to showcase that potential. Both signal-callers got a taste of the spotlight in 2021. Fields alternated with Andy Dalton and Nick Foles during his rookie campaign, in which he played 12 games. He completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,870 yards, seven touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
He also took 36 sacks and spent some time injured. There's no doubt that Fields had more than his fair share of "welcome to the NFL" moments. But Bears fans are upbeat about what he could do this season, especially after his performance in this year's preseason finale in Cleveland. In that Aug. 27 game, Fields completed 14 of 16 passes for 156 yards and three scores. He did not throw an interception or take a sack and finished with a 146.9 passer rating. If Fields can continue to play like that, not only will it help Luke Getsy's offense thrive, it will help the Bears improve as a whole.
Lance had a much different experience last season. He appeared in six games in relief of an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, where he completed 41 of 71 passes for 603 yards and five touchdowns (just two interceptions and four sacks). Despite the lack of experience, the team put its faith in him by naming him the starter over the offseason.
But Garoppolo is still on board, as he restructured his contract to be Lance's backup. It appears that the Niners' front office was unable to work out a trade for the Chicago-area native. But the Bears will have their hands full against Lance, but they'll have a good idea of what to expect since they practice against Fields — who has a similar skillset to Lance — every week.
2. All about the pass rush
Bears All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn will be tasked with trying to limit what Lance can do. He broke Richard Dent's single-season franchise record for sacks in '21, 18.5, which put him second in the league behind only Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt. Although he's been the subject of trade rumors since this year's draft, he's still on the roster for the time being. And while that's the case, the Bears will need him to pick up where he left off from last season.
Not to be outdone, 49ers pass rush specialist Nick Bosa finished fourth in the sacks category one year ago (15.5). He only registered one sack in last year's opener against Detroit, so he's looking to improve that number in this year's opener. And he'll be eager to reduce Fields' effectiveness. Whichever team has the more effective pass rush will win this game.
3. Wild cards
Two of the most fascinating players are Bears linebacker Roquan Smith and 49ers do-it-all wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Smith held out during training camp as he was looking for a new contract. And rightfully so, as he's long outplayed his current one. Negotiations with new general manager Ryan Poles went nowhere over the summer, but his holdout caused him to miss the entire preseason. Now, Smith says he's ready to play out the final year of his rookie deal and hope for a new deal next year.
Considering that Poles appears to want Smith to prove himself on the field again, that's just what he'll have to do. He could be rusty on Sunday because of his absence from the preseason, and he'll have to block out thoughts of a new contract so he won't get distracted. It's time for Roquan to deliver on the field once again.
As far as Samuel, he reportedly requested a trade in the offseason but instead received a contract extension (three years, $73.5 million). He returned to practice this week from a knee injury, and the 49ers need him at full strength because of what he brings to the table. His contributions to the passing attack, running game, and special teams have been key factors in the Niners' success over the last couple of seasons. Now he needs to go out and return the investment on that contract.
Against the Bears last season, Samuel caught six passes for 171 yards. He single-handedly embarrassed the Chicago defense, and he'll need to be healthy for Sunday if he wants to do it again. In that same game, Roquan Smith had six tackles, including one for loss.
This will be the seventh meeting between these teams since 2014 (San Francisco has the 35-32-1 all-time series lead), and this will be the fourth game at Soldier Field during this stretch. In those seven games, the Bears are 3-4 against the Niners. This includes last year's game, in which 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell (who's dealing with a hamstring injury) gutted the Bears defense for 137 rushing yards and a touchdown. The 49ers walked out of Chicago with a 33-22 victory.
Although this Bears team will start to improve, and I do expect this year's game to be closer than last year's, the Bears aren't quite there just yet. Unless they can find a way to slow down Lance, Mitchell, and Samuel at the same time (assuming the latter two play), the Niners will make it two straight wins at Soldier Field.
Prediction: 49ers 28, Bears 21
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.
*Price as of publication.