Both the Washington Commanders and Chicago Bears are going through the growing pains of rebuilding. Entering this week's "Thursday Night Football" matchup with a combined record of 3-7, it's been difficult for either team to establish a rhythm playing against some of the heavyweights in the NFL.
Half of the Commanders' four losses have come to the Cowboys and Eagles, two teams with a combined record of 9-1. The Bears' opponents are even stronger; four of them have winning records and two, the 49ers and Vikings, are currently leading their respective divisions. The Bears' upset over those 49ers, in sloppy conditions during the season opener, easily qualifies as their best win in recent memory; since then, they've lost three of four.
While both teams are coming off tough stretches, the Commanders are in real need of a momentum boost. Their point differential (-38) is the worst in the NFC, they're winless on the road (0-2), and rumors put head coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat after losing eight of his last 10 going back to last season. At least there's the benefit of history on his side: Chicago hasn't won at Soldier Field against Washington in almost 20 years (2003).
Can Rivera straighten out the Commanders' offensive woes and finally put a win on the board? Or will Chicago's young team continue their development and find a way back to .500?
Thursday Night Football: Washington (1-4) at Chicago (2-3)
Three Things To Watch
1. How will Carson Wentz play after Ron Rivera's comments this week?
Rivera's Commanders play in the NFC East, one of the season's pleasant surprises. The other three teams in this division have jumped out to a combined 13-2 record, including the New York Giants, who already have as many wins (four) as they had in the entire 2021 season.
Rivera seemed to put Wentz in hot water when asked why his divisional rivals are a step ahead.
His answer? Just one word.
Rivera later walked back his comments, publicly apologizing, while Wentz made clear it was also addressed in a private team meeting. But the circus-like drama wasn't what this franchise needed in a year in which this offense was already struggling.
On paper, Wentz has been somewhat respectable. His 1,390 pass yards and 10 touchdowns rank second in the NFC. One of those touchdowns went for 75 yards; only Jared Goff and Josh Allen have longer completions this year.
But Wentz has also been sacked 20 times, one off the league lead. His six interceptions rank third in the NFL and have come at some of the worst possible times. Last week, one was gifted at the Titans' 1-yard line in the final minute to seal a devastating 21-17 loss.
It's been hard enough already for Wentz to shake a reputation damaged by losing to the NFL's worst team last season (Jacksonville) in the 2021 season finale, dropping his former team (Indianapolis) out of the playoffs. And a shaky list of offensive weapons will likely be without wide receiver Jahan Dotson Thursday night; he's battling a hamstring injury. It's hard to see a sudden turnaround here, especially with the Bears' ninth-ranked passing defense.
2. How will the Bears' offense keep developing?
While Wentz has had his share of problems, those 1,390 yards in the air are more than the entire Chicago offense combined. Their 1,370 yards overall rank 31st in the NFL, ahead of only the Carolina Panthers, as the team works through the development of second-year signal caller Justin Fields.
Fields has averaged just 135.8 yards passing per game, dead last in the NFL. He's been sacked a total of 18 times, thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three), and completed just 55.7 percent of his passes.
That said, this dual-threat quarterback (194 rushing yards this season) is coming off of his best effort of the still-young season against the Vikings. His season-high 208 passing yards came paired with a season-low two sacks, proof the offense did a better job overall against the pressure.
"When I first got here," Fields said after the game, "You see big guys flying around, D-lineman going fast, you just think you have to speed everything up. I'm just starting to figure out you got to play within your rhythm, the way you know how to play and just stay calm in the pocket."
Can Fields continue to step up against a Commanders defense whose 14 sacks rank seventh in the NFL? One weapon he needs to further utilize is running back Khalil Herbert. His 328 yards on the ground have been highly effective, but he's been held to just five catches for 37 yards thus far. Especially during a game like last week (where Herbert was held to just 11 yards on four carries), the Bears need to add a few check-down throws that give their star back a chance to move the football.
3. Can Washington's defense cause turnovers?
The Commanders have been middling on defense so far this season, tied for 17th overall in total yards allowed. Where they've struggled is creating takeaways, causing just one measly interception to rank dead last in the NFL.
If they're doing their jobs, that changes Thursday night; Fields has six fumbles this season all by himself. Without those momentum-changing plays, it forces the Commanders to lean heavier on an offense that's failed to produce for them in crunch time. The last two games have led to zero fourth-quarter points for the Commanders; can the defense be the ones to score?
The Bears have proved frisky, with first-year coach Matt Eberflus stressing 110 percent effort throughout all four quarters. They've kept it close in a few games and seem to have enough offensive firepower to push past a Commanders team that's struggled on the road.
The wild card here: it feels like a make-or-break week for Rivera and Wentz. A player and a coach fighting for their jobs always adds an extra layer; it's likely why the game is a pick 'em. But no amount of desperation can change the level of talent on the Commanders' roster.
In a second straight Thursday night snoozer (can anyone supply Al Michaels a little alcohol?), I think the Bears will pull this one out.
Prediction: Bears 21, Commanders 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
*Price as of publication.