Emma's Tailgater: Bears In The Hunt

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- With a quarter to go in this regular season, the Bears find themselves in NFL purgatory. They are In The Hunt.

What does it mean to be in the hunt? It's the select company of teams overachieving their low expectations and others that underwhelm to their high hopes. The Bears fit in the latter category, once billed as a Super Bowl contender but now holding just a 3 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.

The Bears could win out to improve to 10-6 and still miss the playoffs. They could theoretically finish 9-7 and earn the NFC's second wild-card spot. They also could lose out to finish 6-10 and ensure they'll be remembered as a major disappointment.

But as long as there's bleak hope, the Bears' wishbone-C logo will continue to appear on graphics in national broadcasts in the company of the NFL's average teams.

The Vikings' loss to the Seahawks on Monday night moved the Bears' odds of making the playoffs to 3 percent. Earning a win against the Cowboys on Thursday would lift those odds all the way to ... wait for it ... 5 percent

Hey, at least there's meaningful football left on the calendar -- until one loss ends the Bears' remaining hopes.

"It speaks to the direction of where we could've went in that four-game slide," coach Matt Nagy said of the losing streak that dropped the Bears from 3-1 to 3-5 earlier this season. "I thought it revealed a lot of who we were as a team and who we are as people. No one not one time started pointing fingers. No one started blaming. I hate blamers. Hate's a strong word, but I dislike blamers. 

"Coaches, players, anybody, we just tried to come up with solutions. That part's what I took from it. It put us now in a position where we are playing some meaningful games. That's a credit to our players for battling through that. It makes you proud to be their coach."

The eternal optimist Nagy always finds the positive, but what general manager Ryan Pace and his brass should consider is what led the Bears to such poor play in the first 12 games.

Only a miraculous run to the playoffs and a victory in January could render the Bears' season as anything other than a failure. And that will be a reality for Nagy and Pace to face once the Bears' remaining playoff hopes are dashed.

At least there's something still left in a season that was once spiraling. The Bears are in the hunt.

Open field

Since the Bears started training camp in July, we've heard countless expressions from them reminding of the importance of having patience with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Incremental progress.
Constant growth mindset.
Best I’ve ever seen him on a Thursday.

The Bears have been building up Trubisky's confidence behind closed doors at Halas Hall before offering positive reinforcement publicly, but we hadn't seen that progress revealed in a substantial way -- until last Thursday in Detroit.

Trubisky led the Bears to a comeback 24-20 win against the Lions, going 29-of-38 for 338 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. His performance extended beyond the numbers as well.

Playing in front of a national audience, Trubisky played with the kind of confidence that he had lacked for most of this season. That was showcased in quicker progressions, precise decisions and the kind of cool demeanor to lead a comeback and save his team's season for at least one more week.

On the go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:17 remaining, Trubisky hit running back David Montgomery on a three-yard strike in the end zone. It was the third progression for Trubisky, who in the past might've lost his composure and taken a sack or forced a ball to a covered first or second read.

After that touchdown, Nagy told Trubisky that was something "special players" do. The Bears believe the significance of Trubisky's performance went beyond just the win.

"It's a confidence booster for him going into next week," center Cody Whitehair said.

Trubisky can still has time left to convince the Bears he's their best option at quarterback in 2020. To do so, he'll have to play with confidence and let it show in his performance. Trubisky's inconsistencies haven't been for a lack of talent. They've largely been a matter of his demeanor dragging and displaying the composure needed to make the correct throws.

If Trubisky can elevate the Bears in these last four games -- regardless of the meaning in the standings -- it will prove to be an important stretch after all.

4-down territory
1.) 'Mufasa' readying to return

"It’s always fun when you’ve got the Mufasa out there," star pass rusher Khalil Mack said of Hicks. "I call him Mufasa. That’s my guy. Real special player. Not only that, he’s a real special person."

Hicks isn't eligible to return to game action until Chicago visits Green Bay on Dec. 15, but getting him back to the practice field Sunday was the first step towards the expected activation of Hicks, who suffered an elbow injury in a loss on Oct. 6. The Bears fell to 3-2 with that loss to the Raiders but still believed they would be a contender when Hicks was eligible to return.

Hicks said if it's his call, he will return to play as long as his body allows -- meaning the standings won't impact his return. The Bears are willing to give him that respect after a grueling rehab has him nearly ready to return.

"We all know what a game wrecker he is when he's in there," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He changes a game."

2.) Prince-less?

The Bears are in danger of a potential matchup problem on defense against the Cowboys.

Starting cornerback Prince Amukamara self-reported a hamstring injury after the win last Thursday, an ailment the Bears first listed on their injury report Monday. He hasn't practiced this week, and his status for Thursday is in doubt.

The Cowboys have the NFL's top-ranked passing offense, and the Bears may need to start reserve cornerback Kevin Toliver. If that's the case, Pagano will have to decide between keeping top cornerback Kyle Fuller stationed on one side or moving him around to shadow top Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper.

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott leads the NFL in averaging 315.7 passing yards per game.

3.) Roquan shining

The Bears missed the impact of inside linebacker Roquan Smith on several occasions this season -- not only during his one-game absence on Sept. 29 for personal reasons but also in a few games after when he wasn't his usual self.

Smith has been playing at a high level recently, including when he posted a career-best 15 tackles last Thursday.

"When he plays well, we play well as a defense," Mack said. "It’s going to be huge. I’m looking forward to see what he’s does Thursday."

4.) Holding on

Why doesn't a Bears quarterback serve as the holder for field-goal attempts? In the wake of the Dolphins' successful fake field goal Sunday -- with holder/punter Matt Haack tossing it in the end zone to kicker Jason Sanders -- that question was presented to Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor.

"The thing that you like with the holder being there all the time is that when they go off to the side (practicing field goals during series on offense) and are working on their own, they’re with each other," Tabor said. "Time on task is kind of the deal there. But we do have a plan for the backup holder there, and Chase (Daniel) does a good job for us if we needed it."

Quote to note: 

"They’re never, ever going to quit. They’re going to fight until the bitter end -- regardless."

Injury report

CB Prince Amukamara (hamstring) -- The Bears can prepare for Toliver playing cornerback in place of the injured Amukamara.

TE Ben Braunecker (concussion) -- Braunecker has yet to clear the concussion protocol. Opportunity is knocking again for rookie Jesper Horsted.

WR Taylor Gabriel (concussion) -- Like Braunecker, Gabriel has still yet to clear the concussion protocol. Javon Wims would be the next man up at receiver.

OL Bobby Massie (ankle) -- This ankle sprain was expected to keep Massie out for multiple weeks, and he isn't close to a return yet. 

LB Danny Trevathan (elbow) -- The Bears are giving Trevathan the chance to return from his injury. But it won't happen Thursday, and the clock is ticking.

Prediction (8-4): Bears 16, Cowboys 13

It's the Bears' biggest game until their next one, maybe. Win and they keep the season alive. Lose and they start looking toward 2020. It should be an interesting game between two desperate teams. The Bears will come out on top.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.