It's a sports cliche that goes back as far as the dawn of competition itself, branded, rebranded, and sold to any sorry group of athletes offended enough to listen. "Nobody believes in us" is the type of rallying cry they base cheesy movies around, the ones with narritive arcs so familiar you can predict the ending after seeing the trailer. For all of the tackiness, though, few ideas can motivate a team of devilishly rich and successful individuals like those four words, even when it isn't fully accurate. This has been proven true in sports over and over again, and the Chicago Bears hammered home the point on Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field.
Fresh off a trip to the conference finals, the Bears opened the 2011 season as a three-point home underdog to the Atlanta Falcons, with even the most analytical-based prognosticators predicting a free fall from the NFL's elite tier. This wasn't just a litmus test, it was a placement exam: the Bears were thought by the world to be the inferior team in their noon showdown, luck-addled 2010 results be damned. But while everyone else was trying to figure out which upstart would grab Chicago's spot in the NFC playoffs, the Bears went out and proved beyond a doubt that what happened a season ago was no fluke. This looked like a damn fine football team, and quite possibly an even better one than the group that went to last year's final four. It's also one that will be around much longer than anyone expected. Yes, the Bears' 30-12 victory over the Falcons to open the 2011 season was that impressive.
Before we proceed, let's get one thing straight: the doubts were justified, at least somewhat. Even a football fan in training wheels could identify Chicago's flaws heading into the new year, yet nothing was done to fix them even with an astounding amount of salary cap space tucked in Jerry Angelo's back pocket. Instead, the Bears decided to trust their own players, a hodgepodge of castoff veterans (Roy Williams and Tim Jennings), unproven youngsters (Henry Melton and J'Marcus Webb), and aging, once-proud stars who predate George W.'s second term. Perceived upgrades were everywhere as teams raced to get under the league's new salary cap rules, yet the Bears mostly ignored the ruckus. While they kept saying this was about trust, any local radio voice or art school grad with a blog was ready to tell you it was about something else entirely: frugality, the type that has been associated with this team as long as any of us can remember. While the idea is still very much legitimate, the Bears' powerful performance yesterday showed that maybe these guys are better than we believe. Chicago's brain-trust said they could compete for a Super Bowl by keeping things status quo, and, through a single week, the team they built proved we owe them the chance to decide their own fate before the rest of the world writes them off.
Perhaps it'd be different if the offensive and defensive clinic the Bears displayed Sunday came against a bottom-feeder, but the Falcons are no such thing. This is supposed to be a rising juggernaut, last year's No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and a team that simply does not lose very often under Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith. Against the Bears, they were outclassed on both sides of the ball at every turn. Even when they win, Lovie Smith's Bears have often done it with smoke and mirrors. That was hardly the case yesterday. Bluntly stated, Chicago curb-stomped their ballyhooed opponent, and they did it convincingly and thoroughly.
The Bears struggled to grasp coordinator Mike Martz's intricate passing offense when it debuted a season ago, but things appear to be much different in year two. Even when the passes weren't completed, the offense still looked like it knew what it was doing. You couldn't say that a year ago, when young receivers often ran around like headless chickens and a porous offensive line made Cutler the league's most sacked quarterback. Yesterday, the unit was borderline electric: Cutler was as accurate as we've ever seen him in this city, the playmakers made plays, and the line, while hardly great, at least looked improved. This was a team that couldn't convert a third down to save its soul last season. Yesterday, against a strong Falcons defense, it extended drives six times, including twice on the opening possession.
Sometimes these things take time: after all, Martz has the reputation of a tortured genius. Are those types ever fully understood initially?
Because of the historic and seemingly unbreakable offensive ineptitude this franchise practically defines, Cutler, Matt Forte, and the rest of the offense will draw all the headlines, and deservedly so. But this moment can't pass before we recognize the defense, a unit that looked ferocious, dominant, and superior to the one that carried this team to great heights a season ago. There's something romantic about the usual suspects making the wheels churn, and that was exactly the case against Atlanta: Urlacher might have played one of the best games of his career, Peppers was Peppers, Charles Tillman reminded us why we love him, and the pass rush was, in a word, incredible. If Lovie Smith preaches anything, it's rushing the quarterback and forcing turnovers. After three takeaways and variety of crack shots taken on Ryan, the Bears embattled coach will sleep as sound as ever.
So yes: if you're the sort of person who grades football games -- it's cool, trust me -- this one hovers somewhere near an A+. I doubt even the cocksure leaders of this team thought dismantling the Falcons with such ease was an option, but the Bears did it from the start and never let up. Now comes an even bigger test: New Orleans, in that famed dome. Guess what: the Vegas lines opened late Sunday, and the Bears start the week as a seven-point underdog. Deep down, I'd doubt they're upset.
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.