Race for Caleb Williams: Why Thursday is the Bears' only must-win game the rest of the season

Aware that their beloved Chicago Bears no longer have realistic hope of climbing back into playoff contention, some of the franchise’s savviest fans are taking a pragmatic approach to the rest of the NFL season.

They’re rooting against their favorite team because every loss potentially nudges the Bears closer to securing the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Those fans face a conundrum on Thursday night when the Bears meet the other NFL team that Chicago wants to lose every game. Carolina would also be a leading contender to select first in next year’s draft, except the rebuilding Panthers traded their 2024 first-round pick to the Bears last spring as part of the haul that ultimately netted quarterback Bryce Young.

As a result, the Bears have two potential pathways to winning the Caleb Williams sweepstakes or to having their choice of any other prized prospect. Only the hapless Arizona Cardinals (1-8) have a worse record than Carolina (1-7) and Chicago (2-7).

That raises an obvious question heading into Thursday’s unappealing yet deceptively important prime-time matchup that pits Chicago vs. Carolina: Who should Bears fans root for?

Do they hope the Bears win because it increases the odds that Carolina finishes with the NFL’s worst record at the end of the season? Or do they hope the Bears lose because, while Chicago and Carolina would then both trail Arizona by a full game, it would still leave them with two bites at the apple?

To tackle that question, Yahoo Sports sought the help of a handful 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 effort to assess how a Bears win or loss Thursday night would impact their chances of securing the No. 1 overall draft pick.

The Bears’ odds of drafting No. 1 overall would increase to 46% if they beat the Panthers, Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus told Yahoo Sports. In that scenario, the Bears would have a 5% chance of finishing with the NFL’s worst record, according to Riske’s simulations, while the Panthers would have a 41% chance.

The likelihood of the Bears securing the first pick would sink to 35% if they lose to the Panthers on Thursday night, Riske said. The Bears’ odds of finishing with the league’s worst record would vault to 21% in that scenario, according to Riske’s simulations, but the Panthers’ odds would plummet to 14%.

Those probabilities are similar to the ones produced by the simulations that Eric Eager of Sumer Sports did for Yahoo Sports. The Bears have a 39.3% chance of obtaining the No. 1 pick if they beat Carolina and a 27.4% chance if they lose, according to Eager.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

“It’s really a question of which outcome is more sustainable,” Eager 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 that they’re closer to Arizona.”

Simulations use teams’ power rankings and numerous other factors to try to project the outcome of games ahead of time. Even the most basic simulations take into account injuries, home-field advantage or differences in rest for both teams. Eager goes so far as to incorporate the difference in desperation levels between a newly hired head coach and one that needs to win to save his job.

“The Panthers may make marginal decisions sitting a guy or not sitting a guy that will benefit them long term at the expense of winning games this year,” Eager said. “The Bears have already demonstrated with some of their moves that they’re looking to win now.”

While simulations are by no means foolproof, other data scientists who did not have such a tool available to them still came to the same conclusion that Bears fans should be rooting for their team to win on Thursday night.

“If I were a Bears fan, I would root for the Bears to win,” said Adi Wyner, a probability models expert and stats professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “I’d rather have the 1-8 Panthers try to out-bottom the Cardinals than both teams at 2-7. I think that’s the better hope."

Carnegie Mellon professor and sports analytics researcher Ron Yurko agreed that a Bears win “would put them in better position to get the No. 1 overall pick.”

“The Panthers don’t play another bottom-tier team the rest of the way,” Yurko pointed out. “They’re not playing the Cardinals later this season like the Bears do.”

The No. 1 pick takes on additional importance due to the presence of Williams, the playmaking USC quarterback touted as having the potential to be one of the best at his position some day. Strong-armed North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is also no consolation prize, nor is heralded wide receiver prospect Marvin Harrison Jr. of Ohio State.

Whether the Bears would take a quarterback at No. 1 could depend on the performance of third-year pro Justin Fields. The Bears will no doubt try to spend the rest of this rebuilding season closely evaluating Fields and assessing whether he’s expendable or a pillar of their team for years to come. That evaluation, however, continues to remain on hold as Fields will miss another game with a thumb injury on his throwing hand.

Whatever the Bears decide, obtaining the No. 1 overall pick gives them the most leverage. They can select a quarterback, go with Harrison or trade down for a haul similar to the one Carolina sent them a year ago.

So while Thursday’s clash of last-place teams may be the least appealing prime-time matchup of the NFL season, it’s also in some ways the biggest remaining game for the Bears.

It’s the only game the Bears have left that they can improve their future by winning.