In a battle between two last-place teams, the San Francisco 49ers (1-10) will visit the Chicago Bears (2-9) on Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field. The clubs have combined for one win — yes, one — in the past eight weeks.
Yet as strange as it sounds, the game carries significance heading into 2017. Both teams are on track to receive top-five picks in NFL draft, and this weekend's matchup could help determine the order of selection.
Naturally, players on both sides do not want to hear about how a loss might improve their team's draft position. They are starved for a victory, and many second- and third-stringers who are now in the lineup know that the final five weeks of the regular season will serve as an audition tape as they look for jobs next year.
One player who could benefit the most from a strong performance this week is Bears quarterback Matt Barkley. The 26-year-old faced an uncertain future when the Arizona Cardinals released him at the end of training camp, but he has found opportunity in Chicago after injuries to Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Connor Shaw.
Barkley made his first NFL start last week against the Tennessee Titans and likely will be under center once again this week. He completed 28 of 54 passes for 316 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions and nearly engineered a fourth-quarter comeback before the Bears' final drive stalled inside the Titans' 10-yard line.
“Moving on from here, (we know) that we can win, that we have guys on this team that can win games,” said Barkley, a former college standout at USC. “Just making sure that we don't shoot ourselves in the foot, I think that's the goal from here on out.”
The same could be said for the 49ers.
On offense, San Francisco has played much better in recent weeks thanks to the re-emergence of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The outspoken 29-year-old continues to make headlines for his non-football actions, and now he is creating a buzz with his performance on the field. In four starts in November, he passed for 1,110 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions for a 96.0 rating. He scrambled 29 times for 223 yards and a touchdown.
“I feel like I'm getting more and more comfortable in this offense,” Kapernick told the San Francisco Chronicle this week. “Ultimately, I think that's what it comes down to for a quarterback. Getting comfortable in an offense, really getting your feet settled in, getting that foundation, where you can go out and just play freely. This offense has been great for me in that way.”
Against a short-handed Bears defense, Kaepernick could thrive. Chicago will be without starting linebackers Jerrell Freeman (suspension) and Danny Trevathan (knee injury), which means that rookie fourth-round draft pick Nick Kwiatkoski and 2015 undrafted free agent John Timu are likely to start in the middle of the 3-4 scheme.
The 49ers have averaged 20.7 points per game, which ranks 22nd in the league. The Bears rank similarly on the opposite side of the ball as they have allowed 24.0 points per game, which ranks 18th.
The numbers are much more difficult to predict this week when the Bears have the ball. Chicago has averaged 16.2 points per game, which is second-to-last in the league. The Bears have scored 17 points or fewer in all but three games this season, and their highest output for the season is 23 points against the Colts.
However, as poorly as the Bears' offense has performed, the 49ers' defense has been just as bad. San Francisco has allowed 31.3 points per game, which is last in the league. The injury-riddled defensive unit, which remains without key players such as linebacker NaVorro Bowman (Achilles) and safety Eric Reid (biceps), has allowed 40-plus points three times this season and has given up 30-plus points a whopping eight times in 11 games.
This season's ugliness combined with the dismissal of Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich led some to speculate that 49ers coach Chip Kelly might be interested in returning to his previous position in the college ranks. But Kelly told reporters this week that he had no interest in going back to Eugene.
“I haven't talked to a college since I've been in the NFL, and that's not my goal,” Kelly said to the San Francisco Chronicle. “My goal is to be the head coach of the 49ers. That's what I'm going to do. It surprises me that it continues to be a new story. It's been the same story since I left four years ago. I'm not looking to go back, and that's what I've always said.”