The overwhelming fragility of success in the modern NFL was again on display for a national audience in the middle of the Chicago Bears' 13-7 victory over the Detroit Lions on Monday night. Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh chased after Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in the second quarter before finally catching up. The result was an exercise in fortitude, not only for Cutler but for Bears fans have who been through this before. Suh seemingly raised Cutler's defenseless body ever so slightly with his hip before slamming him to the Soldier Field turf with no regard for his well-being. It served as a harrowing reminder of the dangers that lurk before 'hike' is called on every snap. On the NFL Network's post-game highlight show just hours later, the host described the hit with a nervous laugh: "That'll knock the wind outta ya. That'll take your ribs out just a bit. That'll shake your head up just a bit."
A nervous laugh might be the only way to process NFL football at this point. America's most popular and profitable sport is as vibrant as ever, but one can't help but fight the feeling a crossroads are on the horizon. Overgrown defensive players boast size/speed combinations that make them closer to a superhero than a human being like you or I, and the technology behind player safety can't keep up. The result is brutal sport plagued by undeniable long-term health concerns for anyone who straps on a helmet. You're lying to yourself if you think the only thing hanging in the balance during that exact moment on Monday was the Bears' precarious Super Bowl aspirations. And people say Jay Cutler isn't tough.
Cutler would jog off the field for one play before returning to fire an incomplete pass. He played the rest of the game. Of course he did. He's a football player. Was he off the field long enough for even a basic sidelines concussion test? No. How Cutler was cleared to return to action so quickly, I will never know. Fortunately a later report pegged the Bears' quarterback with only a case of bruised ribs and no mention of head trauma. You can be sure Cutler sufficiently got his bell rung on the play, though. The Bears and their fans can thank their lucky stars he made it out alive.
It was only one drive later when ESPN cut to commercial to show that wonderful new Derrick Rose adidas commercial we all love, the one that depicts a city in mourning after the point guard's ACL tear before Rose returns to a raucous United Center to complete the fairytale narrative. And I'm telling you, man, watching that spot in the moment was something close to torture. Yes, Cutler was back on the field, but after what Chicago sports fans have endured over the last year, flashbacks to the past were inevitable.
The Bears' 2011 season was killed by Cutler's broken thumb. The Bulls, so valiant throughout all of last season, were finished the moment Rose landed awkwardly in the fourth quarter of their first playoff game. Even the Blackhawks saw their fortunes shift hands when Marian Hossa was the receiving end of a bloodthirsty hit from Raffi Torres.
For a split second, with Cutler at the mercy of Suh and only Suh, another Super Bowl opportunity flashed before Chicago's eyes. This city craves nothing more than NFL glory 26 years after the '85 Bears did us proud, and everyone knows this might our best chance since. Here it was, appearing to crash down once again.
The hit on Cutler overshadowed what was another incredible defensive effort from the Bears, and a lackluster offensive performance most should be willing to forgive because of the circumstances. The Bears had the shutout in tact before the game's final minute when Matthew Stafford rallied the Lions for the type of back-door cover that fuels the gamblers of America, and in turn the NFL. The score didn't do this game justice. It was never in doubt, at least not after Cutler proved he could stand and the Chicago defense again showcased why it's the league's best.
There is so much praise to go around for this defense. Charles Tillman was certifiably incredible, holding Calvin Johnson, the NFL's most dangerous offensive weapon, to only three catches for 34 yards. The D forced four turnovers including a goal line fumble that was made even more crucial after Detroit's garbage time touchdown. The front seven pressured Stafford consistently all night, sacking him three times, and the Bears again held an opponent under 100 yards rushing.
It's fitting the Suh-plex occurred the same week Lions receiver Nate Burleson talked about Detroit getting its 'bad boy swagger' back, something the receiver will have lots of time to think about after sustaining a broken leg on Monday that will end his season. Who's to say if a lack of swagger is at the heart of the Lions' demise, but there was a reason 99.9 percent of analysts chose the Bears to win this game. After going 10-6 and reaching the playoffs for the first time in an eternity last season, the Lions are bad again. Give the Bears credit for shutting down a potentially potent attack so thoroughly, but Detroit has issues of its own. For Bears fans, this just means one less obstacle is in the way.
The victory moves the Bears to 5-1 and lengthens their lead in the NFC North. The goal is 7-1 before the schedule starts to get really tough, and the Bears are showing no signs of letting up. To think: all of these positive vibes were so close to being destroyed on Monday. A serious bullet dodged, at least as far as the team and their fans are concerned. Here's hoping Cutler was also as lucky.