In this case, the "gold" in question is reaching the .500 mark with a chance, albeit slim, of a postseason berth, as the Bears enter a game as the favorites for the first time this season. While the Bears are fresh off of an improbable, but highly enjoyable, 17-13 victory over the Packers— ruining the retirement party for Brett Favre—the 49ers limp into Soldier Field in last place in the NFC West, 3-8 and losers of consecutive games.
To make the playoffs, the Bears will need to take one of the Wild Card slots, so they pretty much have to win out to finish at 10-6. As daunting as that task may be, there is only one team with a winning record left on their schedule (Minnesota in three weeks). However, since they can only win one at a time, they need to start by beating Frisco. Here are my keys to doing just that.
Pressure the QB
Several Bears coaches have worked for the Niners, most notably DC Vic Fangio (2011-2014), but that doesn't automatically give the Bears an edge. Chicago ranks 14th in defense, second versus the pass, and some of that is attributable to the play of the secondary, but that also is due to pressure provided by the front four as well as solid coaching.
But QB Blaine Gabbert has completed 72.4% of his passes while under pressure, so pressure alone won't stop the offense. He is most effective on short passes up the middle, throwing his only interception last week outside the numbers. Gabbert's QB rating has been solid in the last two losses to Seattle and Arizona, and TE Vance McDonald is emerging as his go-to guy when under pressure.
The Bears sacked Aaron Rodgers twice on Thanksgiving, but are 22nd in the NFL in sacks (22) and are 26th in interceptions (6) and tied for 29th in forced fumbles (4). Yet they are doing so well against the pass, so while that speaks to the play of the corners and safeties, and it also speaks to the pressure generated. Pressure doesn't always equate to sacks and picks but it certainly disrupts the offense
No, that's not the name of a baseball player from the old Negro Leagues, that's something the Bears will have to do if they are going to beat San Francisco, much less win out. December and January have not been kind to the Bears, as they've gone 8-16 since 2010. Incidentally, 2010 was the last time the Bears had a winning record in those months, finishing 3-2.
And the last time they won six straight? 2012.
But they have had time to heal and prepare, last playing on Thanksgiving, while the Niners played on Sunday, that that could be a bit of an advantage.
Stop the Run
The counterpart to the "pressure the QB" key, the Bears are ranked 29th in the league vs. the run in terms of rushing yardage allowed, and only the Saints and Chargers allow more average yards per attempt (Bears 4.8; Saints/Chargers 4.9). With Gabbert at the helm, I would expect San Francisco to try and exploit that fact.
Despite the relative lack of success, teams haven't busted the really long one. The 30 yard longest play is third best in the league. Meanwhile, the Niners rank 20th in the league in rushing and their 3.9 yards per attempt is around where the Bears are offensively (Bears are 3.8).
Carlos Hyde (stress fracture) had received the bulk of the work, though he has not been active for four weeks and counting. His last game was October 11th and yet he still has more rushing attempts and yards than anyone else on the offense. Colin Kaepernick is actually second, but of course he won't be a factor, so expect the 27 year old Shaun Draughn to get most of the carries.
Draughn ran for 51 yards on 15 carries vs Arizona, and if you take away his longest run, he averaged just over two yards per carry, so the Niners may not find it so easy to exploit the Bears defensive weakness.
One area in which the 49ers have been weak is in getting the opposing offense off the field. They are under 20% in forcing three-and-outs (thank you Niners Nation), which is the worst in the NFL. The site goes on to point out that the 49ers special teams have struggled, with opposing teams often find themselves in good field position. So the combination of the defense not stopping drives and starting the ball in relatively good field position has been troublesome for San Francisco.
The Niners cornerbacks have not played well, and while some point to the departure of Fangio (look at how well the Bears secondary has played this season under Fangio), some blame the lack of safety help over the top, injuries and youth. But regardless of the reasons, Jay Cutler should have a field day on Sunday.
NaVorro Bowman is second in the league in tackles (105), but other than him, the Niners defense hasn't been consistent. They rank 28th vs. the pass, and 25th vs. the run. Only the Rams have allowed a higher percentage of completed passes (69.1%), though they have limited passing TDs (tied for 11th). In terms of rushing defense, the Niners haven't been as bad as the Bears statistically, but they have allowed a 71 yard run and the 12 rushing TDs they have allowed is tied for third worst (Bears have allowed just three). There are three teams that have forced just one fumble, and Frisco is one of them.
A two-back set may be a pipe dream, but I'd love to see both Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford in the backfield at the same time. If Martellus Bennett is healthy, the Bears could also return to a three tight end set at times. To their credit, the Niners did hold Carson Palmer, who had been very hot, without a score on Sunday.
Protect the Football
Perhaps of all of Cutler's improvements, limiting mistakes is his best. Although it has slipped out on occasion, he holds the ball with a noticeably tighter grip and overall Jay has 14 TDs vs. six INTs. He is on pace for roughly 10 picks, versus the 18 he tossed last season.
Seven total interceptions by Bears QBs ranks as one of the best in the league, and the protection has been solid most of the year, with 19 sacks allowed (only seven teams have allowed fewer). They have fumbled five times, losing two, which is roughly middle of the pack.
Basically, if the Bears don't beat themselves on Sunday, they have enough talent and the better coaching to beat the 49ers. But don't give them free opportunities. The Bears have improved, but they aren't good enough to overcome those kinds of mistakes.