There's a certain amount of pressure that comes with an unseasonably warm day in Chicago, a sort of social and physical obligation to take advantage of the pleasures of a winter coat-less afternoon so late in the calendar. This city doesn't have four seasons so much as it has two temperatures -- punishingly hot and repressively cold -- so days like Sunday will forever be at a premium. No matter how busy or hungover, the type of gorgeous autumn day we were graced with yesterday must be taken advantage of, not wasted. I'd like to think the sentiment was somewhere at the heart of the Bears' inspired performance during a thorough whomping of the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon at Solider Field.
The Bears were coming off a short week after an impressive Monday night victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia last we saw them, but you certainly couldn't tell from the way they played. The Bears looked energized against the Lions in a way they've rarely seemed under Lovie Smith. Perhaps the gravity of a divisonal contest against a team with a superior record or thoughts of revenge after a prime time soul-bruising defeat last these two teams met had something to do with it, too; who knows. The important thing is that the Bears didn't just earn a crucial victory and get one step closer to securing one of the two wildcard spots in the NFC playoffs in Week 10, they also cemented that they've grown immeasurably since they embarrassed themselves at Ford Field in Week 5 under ESPN's bright lights. This four-game winning streak is no fluke. These Bears are for real, and they appear to be here to stay.
The Bears wasted no time capitalizing on their brutal intent. Julius Peppers provided a moment for the end-of-season NFL Films highlight video with a preposterous strip of Calvin Johnson on Detroit's first possession. Tim Jennings would make it two-for-two for the Chicago defense by forcing a Nate Burleson fumble when Matthew Stafford and co. got the ball back after the subsequent Matt Forte touchdown. Forcing takeaways will forever be the calling card of a successful Lovie Smith team. After bullying the Detroit offense into six turnovers on Sunday, Smith should have been beaming like a proud papa.
There's of course one more key ingredient essential to any old school Lovie Era beatdown, the one cooked up by Dave Toub. Against the Lions, the Bears special teams were as spectacular as ever. Teammates and coaches have said in the past they can see it in Devin Hester's eyes before he turns in the type of transcendent performances only he can make look routine. If that's the case, Hester must have had flames for corneas before taking the field on Sunday. Hester took a punt 82 yards for a score in the second quarter, and threatened to get in the end zone on his two other chances. It was good enough for a 40-yard punt return average before he exited the game just before halftime thanks to an illness. Not bad for a guy fighting both flu symptoms and an ankle injury coming into the contest.
If recent history has taught us anything, it's that an otherworldly Hester performance can embolden the Bears as a whole. Four Stafford interceptions later, the Bears clearly looked like a team invigorated.
For as gnawing as their head coach's less desirable tendencies can be, there's something about a classic Lovie-curated Bears victory that's worth romanticizing. The reason the Bears actually look like a team set for sustained success this season is because they don't have to rely on turnovers and Hester magic to win games in 2011; Cutler and Forte are good enough to earn W's through more traditional means. On Sunday, though, the two didn't even combine for 200 total yards, or, you know, what Forte has provided singularly on a week-to-week basis this season. This was the Bears in all of their 2006 glory: pressuring the quarterback, taking the ball away from the opposition with ruthless efficiently, and getting out of the way in time for Hester to do his thing.
What made the win all the more satisfying was the actions of the Lions, a team seemingly hellbent on carrying on Detroit's proud "Bad Boys" sports tradition. If Jim Schwartz's crew isn't intentionally in-debt to Bill Lambier and the rest of the late '80s Pistons, they certainly act like it. After years of being known as downtrodden losers, Detroit has a new identity this year: high-strung jerks intent on making their presence felt, win or lose. Indeed, the way Detroit played on Sunday won't win them any fans in Chicago, and could be the start of a very real rivalry with our Bears. Ndamukong Suh knocking off Cutler's helmet in the first half and a barrage of hard (and occasionally late) hits on both sides built to a memorable third quarter scuffle after a Jennings interception. It ended with an ejection for D.J. Moore, even if the corner wasn't particularly out of line for retaliating on a dirty play from Stafford.
If anything, the affray provided a tangible example that these Bears have some fight in them. Actually, there were plenty of others, highlighted the defense's tough-as-hell lockdown of Megatron. It added up to what feels like a statement win for the Bears. At 6-3, with the schedule about to soften considerably, it's hard to imagine optimism has ever been higher surrounding this team. The problem areas that seemed predestined to sabotage them appear to be fixed, or at least patched. The offense looks more believable with each passing week. The defense seems rejuvenated and mean.
For the first time this season, I think the Bears are better than they were last year. That team started 9-3 and hosted the conference championship game. All things considered (read: age), the bar should be set no lower this time around. The NFC very well might be "the Packers and everyone else", but it's possible the Bears are their stiffest challenger. It's a shame we have to wait until Christmas day for the two to play again, as Green Bay (and potentially Chicago) likely won't have anything to play for. The Packers are the ultimate measuring stick, and the season won't really have meaning until they are encountered again . The Bears have proved they can at least put up a good fight, though, which is more encouraging than it should be.
If it sounds like we're getting ahead of ourselves, well, this is the aftermath following what amounts to pitching a perfect game. Good teams have expectations, and it's time we heap some on-top of these Bears. At this point, they've earned it.
Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.