True or false: The Chicago Bears’ win over the Carolina Panthers was a step in the right direction

The Chicago Bears returned to practice Monday still feeding off the positive energy from last week’s 16-13 win over the Carolina Panthers.

The Bears have seven games remaining with a lot to prove and a handful of big-picture questions to answer. The next three games are against NFC North opponents — with a Week 13 bye mixed in.

So what’s the latest with the quarterback situation at Halas Hall? Which parts of the Bears’ recent improvements are meaningful?

Tribune writers Dan Wiederer and Colleen Kane work through four Bears topics in “true or false” form.

True or false? The Bears’ latest win was a step in the right direction.

Wiederer: False. At best, it qualifies as a sideways step, an averted disaster more than a meaningful victory. The Panthers remain the worst team in the NFL and came to town on a short week without their best defensive player (Brian Burns), their No. 2 receiver (DJ Chark) and a starting cornerback (C.J. Henderson). And still they hung around until the end and had a potential tying or go-ahead final possession. That’s important context to blend into a night that left the Bears with their third win plus the feel-good vibes that come with a victory.

Look, don’t get me wrong. The Bears had some legitimately solid play to recognize, most notably from the defense, which was on the field for nine possessions and didn’t give up a touchdown while allowing a season-best 213 total yards. The Bears also had three sacks — matching their total from the previous four games combined — and held Carolina to a 3-for-15 effort on third down.

A win is always better than a loss, obviously. But in this case, the degree of difficulty matters. Reason tells us the Bears have to step up against higher-quality competition before we start verifying steps in the right direction.

Kane: It was an ugly game against a really bad team. When it comes to the Bears offense, the best thing that can be said is Tyson Bagent didn’t commit any turnovers after the Bears had five against the New Orleans Saints. There otherwise wasn’t a ton to highlight. And in the grand scheme as we look to the future, what we really need to see is if Justin Fields can take a step forward. (More on that next.)

But I might give the defense the “step in the right direction” tag for all of the reasons you mentioned. Holding an opponent without an offensive touchdown is nothing to sneeze at, and while three sacks might be an average game for most defenses, we know how hard they’ve been to come by for these Bears.

Now they just need to get some takeaways — and, you know, stop a Detroit Lions offense that ranks second in the NFL with 406.4 yards per game. Now that would register as a real step forward.

True or false? Justin Fields can establish himself as the Bears quarterback of the future over the final seven games.

Kane: True. That is if Fields returns against the Lions this week. But the window is getting smaller and smaller for Fields to prove he can build on the progress he showed in a couple of games before he dislocated his thumb Oct. 15. Against the Denver Broncos and Washington Commanders, Fields threw for 617 yards and eight touchdowns. If he wants to state his case to the Bears, he needs to turn in such performances consistently while avoiding the fourth-quarter mistakes that resulted in a huge collapse against the Broncos.

It’s fair to expect Fields might need a game or two to get back in a groove after missing four games. So while there are winnable games left on the schedule, Fields doesn’t have an easy task to prove to general manager Ryan Poles the Bears should keep building around him rather than going after a quarterback in the 2024 draft. But that’s where things are as Fields heads into his 32nd NFL start.

Wiederer: I expect Fields to be cleared to play this week. And when that happens, the pen will be back in his hands to author the next chapter of his football journey. His window of opportunity to earn confidence from the organization may be growing smaller, as you pointed out. But it’s still open. And seven games remain for Fields to steer his story onto a positive path.

The Bears should be close to whole on the offensive line. Their defense is playing about as well as it has during Fields’ time as a Bear. And the offense has a top-five rushing attack to lean into as he works back into a rhythm.

So now what? How will Fields respond to this next set of challenges with so much at stake for his future? Can he stay healthy for the final two months? Can he exhibit heightened pocket awareness while reducing the sacks he takes? Can he limit turnovers and game-changing mistakes? Can he guide the Bears to victory in the fourth quarter of close games? Can he show a consistent ability to be a productive NFL passer?

The blank pages in Fields’ 2023 story are ready to be written.

True or false? This next three-game stretch for the Bears will be a measuring stick of their big-picture progress.

Wiederer: True. Absolutely. Over the next four weeks, the Bears will play the NFC-North leading Lions twice with a Monday night test against the resilient and resurgent Minnesota Vikings sandwiched in.

Welcome to “Measuring Stick City.”

The Lions hung 41 points on the Los Angeles Chargers in their latest win and have one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL, ranking second in total yards (406.4 per game) and sixth in scoring (26.8 ppg). Their defense is feisty and has a chance to force the Bears offense out of its comfort zone.

The Vikings, meanwhile, came to Soldier Field in Week 6 at 1-4 but haven’t lost since, suddenly on a five-game tear without their best player (Justin Jefferson) and with recently acquired quarterback Joshua Dobbs steadying the offense.

The Bears continue to talk about division games as an indicator of their overall progress, yet they haven’t won an NFC North game since Thanksgiving 2021. That has to change in the next four weeks. And even in losing efforts, the Bears have to play a more competitive and spirited brand of football.

Kane: Yeah, what an interesting NFC North picture right now, with the Lions finally the division’s “measuring stick” team, the Vikings winning behind Dobbs and without Jefferson — and the Bears still at the bottom. I don’t know that I’m expecting the Bears to emerge from any of these three games with Matt Eberflus’ first NFC North win. But you’re right in saying they need to show they’re at least competitive. And, yes, I realize what a low bar that is.

I remember talking before the Chargers game about how it was a chance for the Bears defense to show it was legitimate against a decent offense. And then the Chargers scored 24 points in the first half behind three Justin Herbert touchdown passes.

Well, here we are again, with the Bears defense coming off beating a bad team and now facing a real test against the Lions’ top-10 offense. Eberflus and his crew want to show they’ve made progress? This is where they do it.

True or false? The Bears’ midseason MVP is wide receiver DJ Moore.

Kane: True. Moore is among a few players who could get this distinction, but I think Moore has made as big an impact as anybody. He has 52 catches for 793 yards and five touchdowns and had some impressive performances before Fields was injured, including eight catches for 230 yards and three touchdowns in the win against the Commanders.

While his production has dipped a bit with Tyson Bagent at quarterback, Moore has been what was advertised when the Bears acquired him from the Panthers in the trade of the No. 1 pick.

Other players deserve to be in this conversation. Can you give MVP to a kicker? Because Cairo Santos has been great, even with that missed field goal against the Saints in Week 9. Santos has made 15 of 16 field goals, including four from 50 yards or beyond, and 19 of 20 extra points.

And who would be the representative from a defense that has had some good performances over the last six weeks? It’s hard because players have been in and out of the lineup with injuries, but I’d go with reliable cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who is stating his case for being paid.

Wiederer: It’s always a bit unnerving to have to highlight the kicker in a team MVP conversation. But that’s where the 3-7 Bears are right now, without many established candidates for postseason honors. I, too, would vote for Moore, who entered Monday in the top 10 leaguewide in receiving yards (ninth, 793) and receiving touchdowns (10th, five) and should benefit from Fields’ return.

Moore is the offensive player to whom defenses pay the most attention. And while you’d like to see him be a more regular game-changer even when coverages are directed to take him away, he may wind up turning in a career year in his first season in Chicago.

Scroll down the rest of the roster and the only players who even have an invitation to be part of the conversation are probably Santos, Johnson, Cole Kmet and T.J. Edwards. But, yeah, Moore remains the top dog with a chance to continue his solid season over the final seven games.