LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Bears are winning at a rate few would have envisioned, and they sure are having a good time doing it.
A team that figured to be in for a tough rebuilding season instead burst into playoff contention in the NFC and has a chance to hit the .500 mark when the struggling San Francisco 49ers visit on Sunday.
That’s no small accomplishment considering how bad things were last season and the way the Bears (5-6) started this one — their first under coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace.
“We’re executing now more than ever,” cornerback Tracy Porter said. “The offense is coming along, they’re steamrolling. The defense, we’re firing on all cylinders, and the kicking game’s starting to come around as well.”
The Bears have already matched last season’s win total despite an 0-3 start. They’re coming off a rare win at Green Bay that even left their coach letting loose in the locker room afterward, and they’re staring at a team struggling in a big way.
The 49ers (3-8) have dropped two in a row after last week’s 19-13 loss to Arizona and still have not won on the road.
Chicago has three wins in four games, including the win at Green Bay on Thanksgiving that led to quite a scene in the locker room afterward.
Several Bears posted video on social media that showed Fox in rare form. In one, a player picked him up and danced about while others looked on. In another, there’s Fox with his arm around receiver Josh Bellamy, jumping as others chant, “Hey!”
Now, Chicago will try to keep the good feelings going against a team with little to celebrate.
Here are some things to know about Sunday’s game:
THIRD-DOWN PROBLEMS: The 49ers are among the worst teams in the NFL converting on third down. San Francisco’s third-down problems came to light after last week’s loss.
The 49ers were 0 for 9 on third-down conversions against the Cardinals, and 2 of 11 the previous week at Seattle. San Francisco is 45 for 143 (31.5 percent) on the season.
“Just executing, staying efficient, getting positive gains, run or pass, on first and second down,” quarterback Blaine Gabbert said. ‘Defenses are good and fast and don’t give you the deeper throws you need to convert.”
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio might be working in San Francisco had the 49ers not chosen Jim Tomsula as their coach. Gase and Fangio both interviewed for the job. But Tomsula wound up getting promoted from defensive line coach to replace Jim Harbaugh. Gase followed Fox from Denver to Chicago.
Fangio jumped to the Bears after coordinating one of the NFL’s top defenses the past four years in San Francisco.
STUMBLING BLOCKS: Despite the 49ers’ struggles, Fox sees some potential obstacles Gabbert threw for a career-high 318 yards last week. Shaun Draughn is emerging as a featured running back filling in for the injured Carlos Hyde, and San Francisco just contained one of the league’s most potent offenses.
“They’re an outstanding rush offense,” Fox said. “Defensively, they held one of the most explosive teams in the league statistically in Arizona last week to 19 points, so they’re very, very capable.”
ROAD WOES: The 49ers are 0-5 away from Levi’s Stadium and it’s not getting much easier with consecutive road games, at Chicago and then Cleveland.
Tomsula spoke of finding some kind of spark to get his team going right away. At Seattle two weeks ago, he said his team played not to make a mistake and was tentative at times.
“The changes need to come from each one of us and how we have ourselves prepared to play,” Tomsula said. “Again, the acknowledgement of it and mentally coming off getting off a bus on game day and maybe we need to sprint off the bus. But, that sense of urgency and attack that football game.”
SOFTER STRETCH?: After facing AFC West leader Denver and Green Bay the past two weeks, four of Chicago’s remaining five games are against teams with losing records.
That bodes well for a franchise with just one trip to the playoffs since the 2006 team’s Super Bowl run. And a win over the 49ers would put the Bears at .500 for the first time since a 3-3 start in 2014.