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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Mark Potash

Did 2022 Bears hit the Sweet Spot of Bad?

Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) had 15 carries for 178 yards — an NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback — against the Dolphins on Nov. 6 at Soldier Field. But the Bears lost, 35-32. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times, Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times)

Bears quarterback Justin Fields provided several exhilarating moments this season. But he was never a more lethal football weapon than he was against the Dolphins on Nov. 6 at Soldier Field.

In a tantalizing performance that seemed like a breakthrough (whether it was or not), Fields almost singlehandedly foiled a defense that was ready for him — or thought it was.

Featuring a dazzling 61-yard touchdown run that sent the crowd into a frenzy and left the Dolphins’ defense looking helpless, Fields rushed 15 times for 178 yards — setting an NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback and rendering the Dolphins’ strategy of a ‘‘spy’’ useless.

Fields’ production in the passing game was modest. He completed 17 of 28 passes (60.7%) for 123 yards, but he threw three touchdown passes — two to tight end Cole Kmet (18 and four yards) and one to Darnell Mooney (16 yards). Including a 28-yard pass-interference penalty on a pass to newcomer Chase Claypool, Fields had 329 yards of total offense.

It was a glorious day until the end, when Fields and the Bears’ offense ultimately fell short in a 35-32 loss. It was a disappointing finish for some, but the day was an unmitigated success for others. If the Bears’ season was all about Fields establishing himself as a franchise quarterback and the team losing enough games to earn a top-five draft pick in 2023 — ‘‘the sweet spot of bad’’ — this was the ultimate result.

It remains to be seen whether the Bears’ inability to finish close games is a harbinger of a difficult path to a rebuild. Of the 14 games Fields started, the Bears had possession with a chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter 12 times. They were 3-9 in those games.

And the Bears still have to parlay the No. 1 overall pick into a difference-making player (or, better yet, players) who can kick-start the passing game and/or fuel an overall resurgence in 2023 that eventually leads to playoff contention.

Until then, however, the Bears have accomplished a base-level goal for 2022. They have established Fields as a quarterback they will build around, were competitive throughout the season — even against Super Bowl-contending competition —  and not only secured a top-five draft pick but got a bonus with the No. 1 overall pick that gives them a better chance at finding an elite player who can fill one position and indirectly upgrade others.

Here’s a look at how they did it, the Bears’ key games that came closest to the ‘‘sweet spot of bad’’:

1. Dolphins (L, 35-32 on Nov. 6 at Soldier Field)

Fields played arguably his best game of the season, rushing for 178 yards to set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a regular-season game and throwing three touchdown passes as the Bears scored 32 points on offense.

But playing their first game without Roquan Smith (and second without Robert Quinn), the Bears allowed 379 yards. The Dolphins also scored on a return of a blocked punt.

Key numbers: Fields rushed 15 times for 178 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 123 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 106.7 passer rating and a season-high 95.6 QBR.

The upside: Including a 28-yard gain on a pass-interference penalty on a throw to receiver Chase Claypool — playing his first game with the Bears — Fields had 329 yards of total offense.

The downside: Fields had two possessions to tie or win the game in the final 7:50. One ended on a punt at the Bears’ 39. The other ended with back-to-back incompletions — a deep ball to Claypool that could have been pass interference and a fourth-and-10 drop by Equanimeous St. Brown.

2. Lions (L, 31-30 on Nov. 13 at Soldier Field)

With Fields in a comfort zone — two touchdown passes, a 140.0 passer rating and 74 yards rushing — the Bears led 24-10 and were about to wrap it up when linebacker Jack Sanborn intercepted a pass by Jared Goff with 11:42 left.

But a disputed penalty against cornerback Jaylon Johnson nullified the interception, Fields had a brain cramp and threw a pick-six, Cairo Santos missed an extra point and the Lions rallied for a stunning 31-30 victory.

Key numbers: Fields completed 12 of 20 passes for 167 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for a 99.4 passer rating. He also rushed 13 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns.

The upside: Three plays after Fields threw the pick-six that tied the score at 24, he responded with a scintillating 67-yard touchdown run that gave the Bears a 30-24 lead.

The downside: The Bears had a chance to win after the Lions took a 31-30 lead with 2:21 left, but Fields was sacked on second-and-20 from the Bears’ 30 and again on fourth-and-eight from the Bears’ 32 with 1:04 to play.

3. Eagles (L, 25-20 on Dec. 18 at Soldier Field)

Facing the NFC favorite Eagles (12-1), who came in second in the NFL in total defense, first in passing defense and seventh in points allowed, the Bears trailed 17-13 early in the fourth quarter. But Fields cramped up on the drive, and Nathan Peterman came in for a critical third-and-14 from the Bears’ 24. He threw incomplete to Nsimba Webster, and the Eagles scored to take command.

Key numbers: Fields completed 14 of 21 passes for 152 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 119.5 passer rating — the first quarterback to post a 100-plus rating against the Eagles’ defense this season. He also had 15 carries for 95 yards.

The upside: The game wasn’t on the line, but Fields led a six-play, 60-yard touchdown drive in the final five minutes to pull the Bears to 25-20. The drive was capped by a 35-yard touchdown pass to Byron Pringle.

The downside: With the Bears trailing 17-13 in the third quarter, rookie receiver Velus Jones fumbled on an end-around at the Eagles’ 40. Trailing 25-20, the defense had a chance for a stop after the two-minute warning. But on third-and-six, Jalen Hurts threw a 12-yard pass to A.J. Brown to seal the Eagles’ victory.

4. Vikings (L, 29-22 on Oct. 9 at U.S. Bank Stadium)

The Bears trailed 21-3, and everyone was ready to turn out the lights. But they showed some spunk by scoring 19 unanswered points and took a 22-21 lead on Santos’ 51-yard field goal with 9:26 left. They ran out of gas, however, as the Vikings responded with a touchdown drive to win it.

Key numbers: Fields, who had completed only 50.8% of his passes in the first four games (34-for-67), completed 15 of 21 passes (71.4%) for 208 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a career-high 118.7 passer rating against the Vikings. He also rushed eight times for 47 yards.

The upside: Fields still was warming up as a lethal running threat, but he offered a glimpse of what was to come with a 52-yard touchdown run that was nullified by a questionable penalty for an illegal block by receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette with the Bears trailing 21-19 with 11:56 left.

The downside: Down 29-22, the Bears were driving for a tying or winning touchdown (with a two-point conversion), but Smith-Marsette fumbled after a 15-yard reception to the Vikings’ 39 with 1:01 left.

5. Bills (L, 35-13 on Dec. 24 at Soldier Field)

Facing the AFC-contending Bills (11-3) on a 9-degree day with a minus-12-degree wind chill, the Bears led 10-6 at halftime. It was only the second time this season the Bills had trailed at halftime. Even after the Bills scored two touchdowns in the first 7:03 of the second half, the Bears still were within a touchdown and a two-point conversion — trailing 21-13 — with one possession to tie before the Bills finished them off.

Key numbers: Fields completed 15 of 23 passes for 119 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 92.5 passer rating. But after rushing for 806 yards in his previous six games, Fields was held to 11 rushing yards on seven carries.

The upside: Jones, who had four receptions for 27 yards all season coming in, had two receptions for 52 yards, including a 44-yard pass from Fields at the end of the third quarter.

The downside: The Bears went backward on their one possession with a chance to tie in the fourth quarter. Khalil Herbert lost two yards on second-and-six. The Bears were called for too many men on the field on third-and-eight. And Fields lost a yard on third-and-13.

6. Packers (L, 28-19 on Dec. 4 at Soldier Field)

With Fields making three big plays in the first half — a 55-yard touchdown run, a 56-yard pass to St. Brown and a 49-yard pass to N’Keal Harry — the Bears led 16-10 at halftime. They were up 19-10 early in the fourth quarter but faded in all three phases down the stretch to lose.

Key numbers: Fields completed 20 of 25 passes for a season-high 254 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 75.7 passer rating. He wasn’t sacked for the only time this season. He rushed six times for 71 yards.

The upside: The Bears started five rookies on defense against Aaron Rodgers, including Jaylon Jones, Josh Blackwell and Elijah Hicks in the secondary, and held Rodgers to 182 passing yards and an 85.7 passer rating.

The downside: With the Bears leading 19-17 with 11:44 left, Santos had a 40-yard field-goal try blocked. Down 20-19 with 2:57 left, the Bears were at the Packers’ 43 when Fields was intercepted by Jaire Alexander on a play in which St. Brown failed to come back to the ball and at least knock it down. That was all she wrote.

7. Falcons (L, 27-24 on Nov. 20 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

Against a 5-6 Falcons team that was tough to beat at home, the Bears had scored 17 unanswered points to take a 17-7 lead in the second quarter before former Bear Cordarrelle Patterson returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. The Bears rallied for a 24-all tie, but the Falcons’ Younghoe Koo kicked a 53-yard field goal with 1:47 left that made the difference.

Key numbers: Fields completed 14 of 21 passes for 153 yards with one touchdown and one interception for an 84.0 passer rating. He rushed 18 times for 85 yards and a four-yard touchdown that gave the Bears the 17-7 lead.

The upside: After the Falcons scored on the opening drive, Jones — who had been inactive the previous two games — returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards to set up a 44-yard touchdown drive that tied the score.

The downside: Needing only a field goal to tie in the final 1:47, Fields threw an interception on third-and-five from the Bears’ 30 to seal the loss. Fields suffered a separated shoulder on the first play of the drive but only missed one game.

The Bears were arguably one play from winning at least four of those games. Had they won those four games, general manager Ryan Poles would have gone into the offseason with proof his developing team could finish — but with the 13th overall pick in the draft.

Instead, he has a team that repeatedly failed to finish but has the No. 1 overall pick. And Poles was a bit sheepish about having such a dubious asset.

‘‘I think you always [expect to win more games],’’ Poles said at the Bears’ season-ending news conference. ‘‘And some of those close games that can go one way or the other, I was hoping to win those. But that wasn’t the case.

‘‘I know this team has a long way to go. Coming in, that was an understanding that there is a long way to go. Losing, it hurts. You always expect to win more than three games. . . . Obviously the opportunities that will come with that, I hope that helps us. But you’re always expecting to win. You don’t want to be in this position.’’

That said, when offers for that No. 1 pick presumably start rolling in, Poles could get over his disappointment that the Bears didn’t finish 7-10 and warm up to the opportunity the No. 1 pick presents.

His job right now is to make the most of it — and to make all those close losses this season a part of the rebuilding process and not a red flag.

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