By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
“Are you ready for some back to back Thursday Night Football?!”
(Que raucous guitar solo, no Hank Williams Jr. though)
Under less than normal circumstances the Chicago Bears are continuing the process of extending their less than normal season.
Gearing up for their second Thursday game in row after another triumphant Thanksgiving in Detroit, this time the Bears are mixed up in a home affair against the Dallas Cowboys. Because of their traditional Thanksgiving game, which wound up being a terrible loss to the Bills, Dallas is in the same situation schedule-wise, just a introduction to the similarities on hand in this unexpected playoff-impacting contest.
The Cowboys and Bears are pretty similar teams — aside for the wider opinion that the Cowboys are a little more talented — with each team having seriously failed to live up to established expectations this year. This might not be the sexiest match-up but both of these teams are 6-6 and can’t afford another loss, especially in a winnable game. Dallas benefits from competing in the NFL’s weakest division, the NFC East, so a loss here doesn’t quite kill their playoff hopes.
In contrast, the Bears simply need to win and keep winning to extend the hopes they get enough wins to qualify for the playoffs. Desperation in pro football makes for good theater and both of these teams are desperate for a win Thursday night — here are the goals to a happy ending for the Bears.
Stop Dak — This year’s version of the Cowboys are interesting to say the least. They have become more of a passing team instead of the typically-heavy run team featuring running back Ezekiel Elliott. These Cowboys are really tough when Elliot gets going but since they have shied away from him more than usual. In the meantime Dallas has sort of become the Dak Prescott show.
Prescott has been up and down at quarterback, but on any given night he can be one of the best in the game. If the Bears do not make life difficult on Prescott then they could be in some serious trouble.
When things are easy for Prescott it means the passing game is rolling, which leaves opposing defenses susceptible to Elliot and the run game. It is almost like a domino effect with this Cowboys squad, get the quarterback going which leads to the run game which allows their aggressive defense to be more aggressive.
Prescott has played well overall this year with a 99.8 rating, 23 to 11 touchdown to interception ratio and a career high 315.7 yards per game average. Stopping Prescott would make life easier for everyone on the Bears, therefore that’s the number one goal this week.
Create Some Havoc — These two teams are similar beyond their identical records. Both have given fans a lot of stress and anxiety from all the regression this year. Neither has faired well against top level competition and seemingly they each have a propensity to underwhelm.
That being said, the Cowboys are a better team overall and they are slight favorites. Where the Cowboys are significantly stronger compared to the Bears is their offense with bona fide star players at the showcase positions. The Bears have lots of question marks up and down their offense so its likely Chicago’s offense will need help from the other two phases to succeed. Maybe it can be something as small as a big return at the right time from special teams. Perhaps it’ll have to be something more extreme, like a timely takeaway or a score by the defense.
Somehow, someway the special teams or defense of the Bears has to force some havoc and upend the Cowboys’ efforts in the game to create enough easy scoring opportunities for the Bears to win.
Walking Wounded — One advantage that the Bears might have is in the injury report as a few big names for the Cowboys are in danger of not playing.
First off, it was already announced star linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will not play. A tough blow in itself since Vader Esch and fellow middle linebacker Jaylon Smith make one of the best linebacker duos in the league. Then the Cowboys offense could be without their starting tackles as well as two key skill players in running back Tony Pollard and slot receiver Randall Cobb. On defense they could also be without key safety Jeff Heath and defensive end Michael Bennett, all huge non participants if it works out that way.
As for the Bears they have a couple key injuries with tackle Bobby Massie, cornerback Prince Amukamara, receiver Taylor Gabriel and tight end Ben Braunecker all with injury designations. Of course, losing four starters would be a real issue for the Bears, especially at Massie and Amukamara’s positions. The Bears already have offensive line issues and losing a starter makes it much harder to have success against the aggressive Cowboys front.
Losing Amukamara would be huge as well since the Bears defense has to slow down the Cowboys pass game (see goal #1). The final injury report could foreshadow how this game will play out and perhaps how each team will attack the other.
Coaching Counts — Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is in some serious hot water provided by his infamous boss, owner Jerry Jones. You can say its justified since Garrett has not had a lot of success as the team’s coach and many question how good he actually is.
On the other side is Bears coach Matt Nagy, who is not in hot water per se, but he’s certainly had his coaching acumen questioned. It has been a tough year for Nagy and plenty of legitimate concerns about his coaching abilities will linger into next season. But for this week, Nagy can out coach this opponent. One way Nagy can change his narrative is by out-coaching guys like Garrett on a national stage.
Its no doubt that overall talent is the advantage for the Cowboys assuming both teams are healthy. The Bears advantage needs to be overall coaching to offset the difference. No matter which team is the winner, that team will walk away with hope while the loser walks away with despair.
These two coaches need to make sure they get their teams ready, otherwise staunch criticism is coming their way. The goal here is for the Bears coaches to be the difference in a key late-season victory.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR