Ryan Mayer

The Chicago Bears have been one of the surprise teams of the 2018 season, sitting at 7-3 after a 25-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night. The Bears now lead the NFC North by two games over the Vikings and look to be in prime position for a playoff spot.

The biggest strength has been the defense, which ranks fourth in the league in points allowed at a shade under 20 per game, while piling up a league-leading 17 interceptions. Pass rusher Khalil Mack has provided a massive boost to Vic Fangio’s unit, accounting for eight of the team’s 32 sacks this season. As the Bears prepare for a quick turnaround game against the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving, we caught up with CBS’ The NFL Today analyst Boomer Esiason to get his thoughts on this team’s place in the NFC power struggle hierarchy.

You can watch Boomer along with fellow analysts Phil Simms, Nate Burleson Bill Cowher and host James Brown on a Thanksgiving edition of The NFL Today beginning at 12 p.m. Eastern time leading you up to kickoff in Detroit at 12:30. That’s when Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson take over for the call as the Bears meet the Lions. (Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)

CBS Local Sports: The Bears face the Lions at Ford Field to open the Thanksgiving festivities. The Bears dominated the Lions just two weeks ago, sacking Matt Stafford six times. What’s the key matchup you’re watching this time around, as the Bears look to put a stranglehold on the division?

Boomer Esiason: For me, it’s always going to be about the home quarterback playing against a top-ranked defense. Matthew Stafford will have a ton of pressure on him, especially with the way that Khalil Mack has assimilated himself into this Chicago Bears defense.

Aside from that, you have to look at Mitch Trubisky for the Bears. He had a decent game against the Minnesota Vikings, but he does run the ball effectively. He has rushed for more yards so far this season than Cam Newton, so that will be something the Detroit Lions defense has to be worried about.

The one thing I don’t like about this particular game, in regards to the Chicago Bears, is they were moved to a Sunday night game to play against the Vikings and then have to turn around and play an early game, on the road, on Thursday. It’s a short week, it’s a road team, and it’s not easy to overcome those issues. It will be interesting to see how the Bears come out of the gates.

CBS Local Sports: At 7-3 right now, the Bears own the third-best record in the NFC behind the Saints and Rams. They don’t have the same kind of prolific offense as those teams, but the defense is strong. Is that defense enough to put them in contention for a Super Bowl berth?

Boomer Esiason: With at least six games to go for many of these teams, you just never know where a team will end up in terms of their health at the end of the season. The Washington Redskins, just a few weeks ago, were a good story, one of the more surprising stories in the NFL, and then they lose their starting quarterback to a horrific injury against the Texans on Sunday. You just never know how the fortunes of a particular team can change.

But when I look at the Bears right now, they are not in the class of the Rams or the Saints. The Saints are the best team in football. They can do it defensively. They can run the ball. Drew Brees is completing 77 percent of his passes, has almost 3,000 yards with 25 touchdowns and one interception. They are playing football on a different level than everybody else right now.

The Bears are one of the top four or five teams in the NFC. They should go on to win the NFC North. But I do not believe they can go on the road and beat the Rams or the Saints in the playoffs.

CBS Local Sports: On Sunday, the Browns face the Bengals in Cincy. I’m curious what you think about the way this team, and some of the rookies, in particular, have developed this season?

Boomer Esiason: The interesting thing about this game is the story behind the game, and that is the fact that Hue Jackson now works for the Cincinnati Bengals about three or four weeks after he was fired by the Browns. He’ll have intimate knowledge of what the Browns like to do on offense.

But, there’s no question, since firing Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, Gregg Williams has stabilized this franchise a bit, at least in the short term. Baker Mayfield has played exceptionally well. They are coming off a bye and should be well-rested and healthy.

The Bengals, on their side, their defense has just fallen off the face of the Earth. They had given up over 500 yards in three straight games until this past Sunday against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. However, Lamar did run for over 120 yards and did complete 13-of-18 passes, so he had success against this Bengals defense.

I would think that Baker Mayfield will have success as well. This game has a chance to be a very high-scoring game, a very entertaining game. If the Bengals have any hope for the playoffs, this is a game they have to win.

CBS Local Sports: In the late game, the Steelers face the Broncos. Pittsburgh is riding a six-game winning streak after a wild comeback against the Jaguars on Sunday. What’s the key for Pittsburgh to keep that streak rolling against a Broncos team that stunned the Chargers this weekend?

Boomer Esiason: You’re never going to be perfect in every single game. And, in the games you don’t play well, if you can come back and win them late, like the Pittsburgh Steelers did over the Jacksonville Jaguars, that tells you all you truly need to know about how good a team can be.

Ben went through a rough patch on Sunday, throwing a couple early interceptions, but then he came back to win the game. Even though the Steelers scored 20 points, you have to keep in mind the Jaguars threw everything they possibly could at the Pittsburgh Steelers to try and save their own season. Now, the Steelers are playing at home.

To me, they are clearly one of the top five teams in the NFL. Their defense is under-appreciated, and even though James Conner didn’t really get started against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he will have more success against the Broncos. The Steelers are flying, playing well. And even when they don’t play well, they can win.

As far as the Broncos, they will give other teams fits simply because they have a great pass rush with Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. Their defense grinds it out on you. They have a terrific running game. Case Keenum is a guy who can go 10 attempts without a completion before coming back to complete 10 in a row. He reflects this whole team in the sense they do not give up. They excel when the game is close.