After taking care of business against the Arizona Cardinals last week, the Chicago Bears stay at home in Week 17 to host the Atlanta Falcons. This game will be an interesting test for the Bears, who must win to keep their extremely slim playoff hopes alive. The Falcons, by virtue of playing in the abysmal NFC South, are still in contention to win the woeful division, despite owning a record of just 7-8.
Both teams are coming off home wins last week, with the Falcons securing their largest margin of victory this season by thumping the Colts 29-10. The Bears have won four of six and would be on a six-game winning streak if not for two late-blown leads against the Lions and Browns.
Both teams have a lot to play for, so unlike some other games on the Week 17 slate, we should see a hard-fought affair between two teams that still have something to prove. Let's look at the most compelling matchups to watch as we near the end of the season.
1) Taylor Heinicke vs. the Bears' secondary
The Falcons have vacillated between Opening Day starter Desmond Ridder and current starter Taylor Heinicke. The former Washington Commander has started four games for the Falcons this year, with last week's game against the Colts being his only win.
Heinicke hasn't lit the world on fire, but he's certainly not responsible for the team's 1-3 record in his starts. In those four games, Atlanta scored 23, 28, 23, and 29 points. The team's offensive focus has been its strong running game, with first-round pick Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier forming a potent 1-2 punch.
Heinicke has done a much better job of protecting the football than Ridder, whose highlight reel of insanely hilarious turnovers (especially in the red zone) this year should be soundtracked by the Benny Hill theme song.
In four games, Heinicke has only one fumble and one interception, but against the Bears' defense, his ability to keep the ball from the opposing team will be tested. The Bears rank second in the NFL with 18 interceptions, and though they were unable to force Kyler Murray and company into any turnovers on Christmas Eve, they terrorized opposing offenses in the four games prior, taking the ball away 14 times.
Nearly everyone on the Bears' defense has gotten their hands on the ball in recent weeks. Tremaine Edmunds has led the way with three picks in the last five games, while Jaylon Johnson, Tyrique Stevenson, and T.J. Edwards all have two each in the same span. Eddie Jackson, Jaquan Brisker, and Kyler Gordon also have an interception during that time, and Gordon deserves special recognition for becoming an all-around gamewrecker; in coverage, on the blitz, and tackling in the open field, his play has really stood out, even as the entire defense has played well around him.
Whether Heinicke can keep from letting this opportunistic Bears defense get their hands on the ball will be the most important factor in who wins this game.