Why Thursday’s game is the only must-win game the Bears have to win the rest of the season
Realizing that their beloved Chicago Bears no longer have a realistic hope of returning to contention in the playoffs, some of the franchise’s savviest fans are taking a pragmatic approach to the rest of the NFL season.
They are pitted against their favorite team because each loss potentially moves the Bears closer to getting the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Those fans face a dilemma Thursday night when the Bears meet last The NFL team that Chicago wants to lose to in every game. Carolina will also be a major contender for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, except the rebuilding Panthers traded their 2024 first-round pick to the Bears last spring as part of the deal to eventually land quarterback Bryce Young.
As a result, the Bears have two potential paths to winning the Caleb Williams lottery or selecting another valuable prospect. Only the hapless Arizona Cardinals (1-8) have a worse record than Carolina (1-7) and Chicago (2-7).
This raises an obvious question heading into Thursday’s unappealing but deceptively important primetime matchup between Chicago and Carolina: Who should Bears fans be rooting for?
Are they hoping the Bears win because it increases the odds of Carolina finishing with the worst record in the NFL at the end of the season? Or are they hoping the Bears lose because while Chicago and Carolina will trail Arizona by a full game, that will leave them with two bites of the apple?
To address this question, Yahoo Sports enlisted the help of a group of NFL data scientists and sports analytics experts. Two of them used advanced tools to simulate the rest of the NFL season tens of thousands of times in an attempt to assess how a win or loss for the Bears on Thursday night would impact their chances of securing the No. 1 overall pick.
Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske told Yahoo Sports that the Bears’ odds of going No. 1 overall would rise to 46% if they beat the Panthers. In this scenario, the Bears would have a 5% chance of finishing the season with the worst record in the NFL, according to Risk’s simulation, while the Panthers would have a 41% chance.
Riske said the Bears’ probability of getting the No. 1 pick would drop to 35% if they lost to the Panthers on Thursday night. The Bears’ odds of finishing with the worst record in the league would rise to 21% in this scenario, according to Risk’s simulation, but the Panthers’ odds of winning would drop to 14%.
These odds are similar to those produced by simulations conducted by Eric Egger of Sommer Sports for Yahoo Sports. According to Eager, the Bears have a 39.3% chance of getting the No. 1 pick if they beat Carolina and a 27.4% chance if they lose.
“It’s really a question of what is the most sustainable outcome,” Iger said. “Our model thinks that the Panthers being bad is more sustainable than the Bears being bad, so what you want to do is push the Panthers down further so they are closer to Arizona.”
The simulations use teams’ power rankings and many other factors to try to predict match outcomes in advance. Even the simplest simulations take into account injuries, home-field advantage, or differences in comfort for both teams. Eager goes so far as to incorporate the difference in levels of desperation between a newly hired coach and a coach who needs to win to save his job.
“The Panthers may make marginal decisions on whether or not to sit a guy, which will benefit them in the long run at the expense of winning games this year,” Egger said. “The Bears have already shown with some of their moves that they are looking to win now.”
While the simulations are by no means foolproof, other data scientists who didn’t have such a tool available to them still came to the same conclusion that Bears fans should root for their team to win on Thursday night.
“If I were a Bears fan, I would root for the Bears to win,” said Adi Weiner, a probability modeling expert and professor of statistics at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’d rather the 1-8 Panthers try to outscore the Cardinals than both teams going 2-7. I think that’s the best hope.”
Carnegie Mellon University professor and sports analytics researcher Ron Yurko agreed that a win for the Bears “would put them in a better position to finish first overall.”
“The Panthers aren’t playing another lower division team the rest of the way,” Yurko noted. “They don’t play the Cardinals later in the season like the Bears do.”
The No. 1 pick takes on added importance this year due to the presence of Williams, USC’s play-making quarterback who is touted as having the potential to be one of the best players at his position one day. North Carolina powerhouse quarterback Drake May is also not a consolation prize, and wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. from Ohio State is not announced.
Whether the Bears take their No. 1 quarterback could depend on how third-year pro Justin Fields performs. No doubt the Bears will try to spend the rest of this rebuilding season closely evaluating Fields and assessing whether he is expendable or a pillar of their team for years to come. However, that evaluation is still up in the air as Fields will miss another game with a thumb injury to his hand.
Whatever the Bears decide, taking the No. 1 overall pick gives them the most leverage. They could pick a quarterback, go with Harrison or trade him for a similar haul to the one Carolina sent them a year ago.
So, while Thursday’s game between the last-place teams may be the least prime-time game of the NFL season, it is also in some ways the biggest game remaining for the Bears.
It’s the only game left for the Bears in which they can improve their future by winning.