LAKE FOREST – It almost is impossible to imagine a “must-win” game for a 4-10 football team, but Sunday’s meeting with the Cleveland Browns is that game for the Bears simply because they cannot afford to be “that” team, the one that gives the Browns their only win of the 2017 season.
A loss to the 0-14 Browns – who also are 1-29 under coach Hue Jackson – would make the Bears the laughingstock of the NFL.
As defensive end Akiem Hicks said this past Wednesday, the Bears cannot let that happen.
Ironically, Jackson, who is far more deserving of a pink slip than Bears coach John Fox or any other head coach in recent history, was told by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam that he is safe and will be back next season to try to string together another 0-16 or 1-15 season.
The new general manager in town, John Dorsey, who was added only a couple weeks ago after predecessor Sashi Brown got the axe, was reluctant to confirm his owner until he said earlier this week that he also expects Jackson back.
Why? There really is no acceptable explanation.
It’s hard to go 0-14, but Cleveland has turned the trick by ranking dead last in the NFL in passing, interception percentage and points scored, 17th running the ball, 30th converting third downs, 31st in time of possession, and being runaway NFL leader in turnovers, with 36.
The picture isn’t much prettier on defense for the Browns, who are 16th in total defense but 30th in points allowed, 24th against the pass, 25th in interception percentage, 25th in sack percentage, 22nd in third-down defense, dead last in takeaways with only 11 all year and last by a landslide in turnover/takeaway ratio at minus-25.
The next-worst team in the NFL in turnover/takeaway ratio is Denver, at minus-15.
The Bears can’t lose this one, can they?
There are only a couple of things that should concern them.
Cleveland is really bad, but not completely devoid of talent. RBs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr., WRs Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman, C JC Tretter, OGs Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio, DT Danny Shelton, MLB Christian Kirksey, CB Jason McCourty and first-round rookies DE Myles Garrett, S Jabrill Peppers and TE David Njoku would all be on NFL rosters somewhere if they weren’t working in Cleveland.
The one thing the Browns do well combats what the Bears do best. Cleveland is seventh in the NFL against the run and first in average yards per run allowed, while the Bears are 11th running the ball and eighth in average yards gained per attempt.
And it was only Monday that Fox told us the Lions stacked eight and nine men in the box early in the game and left the Bears no choice but to abandon their strength, produce one of their worst rushing performances of the season and pretty much concede the game to the Lions.
The concession is my interpretation, not Fox’s words.
The Browns are capable of hearing that and putting eight or nine in the box, aren’t they?
Actually, maybe not with Jackson, but the prospect apparently is scary to Fox and former Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains.
Equally concerning is that while Cleveland is 30th in points allowed, the Bears are only 28th in points scored.
That’s almost a draw, isn’t it?
Fear and paranoia aside, the Bears clearly are the better team here – the more talented team. They are favored by almost a touchdown, and they should be able to get the job done and claim their fifth win of the season.
But the Browns were 0-14 last season when the Chargers paid them a visit on Christmas Eve, and Cleveland came out on top, 20-17, for the lone win of the Jackson era.
But this time it’s the Bears at home and the young Browns traveling on Christmas Eve with basically nothing to play for, so Bears fans can take solace in that, can’t they?
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.