As a cliche, "Any given Sunday" perseveres as one of sports' best, a truism that's thrown in nearly everyone's face only a few weeks after you join a survivor pool. The NFL is still very much locked into its Parity Era, an age distinct by level playing fields across the league and little margin for error for even the league's purported elite squads. Everyone isn't finishing .500, it's just that injuries, personnel matchups and luck have a tendency to blow up competitive advantages around the league, save for those fortunate few outfits blessed enough to employ a super mind (think: Belichick) or messiah-like quarterback. This is the reason the skeptics that arose during the Bears' unholy beatdown of the Tennessee Titans last Sunday can go suck a lemon.
Whether it was intricate trolling or merely some goons sippin' on Haterade, there seemed to be a vast lot of humans eager to discredit Chicago's thumping of the Titans before it even ended. This was a group readily pointing out that the Titans do indeed suck, and that the bruising they sustained via the Bears said more about Tennessee than it did about Chicago. Perhaps that is true, and that the Bears' 7-1 record is a symptom of fattening up on a cupcake schedule more than anything else. Stop spitting on the computer: I don't believe that to be the case either, yet I'm all for an open mind. But as the Bears enter the second half of their season on Sunday night against the Houston Texans, Chicago will have the only thing one can ever ask for: an opportunity.
Want to talk about cliches that have a tendency to prove their own validity? Let's all agree: if something's too good to be true, it probably is. It's these two axioms that are running around my head as the Bears prepare for the Texans and then the equally mighty 49ers in primetime affairs that seem custom built to kill Chicago's vibe. After all, the 2012 Bears have been so enjoyable, so mind-blowingly dominant, so healthy, that it stands to reason the harsh winds of reality are bound to blow in at some point. Right?
Well, maybe. The second half slate that starts vs. Houston is certainly more terrifying than the first half schedule. If the Bears can go 5-3, I don't see how any reasonable fan can be disappointed. But as Chicago has stockpiled victories and the NFC's playoff picture has started to come into focus, it's becoming more and more clear to me that the only thing that matters is a championship. The Bears need one, the city needs one, and with an aging defense playing out of its collective mind and the offense slowly starting to gain footing, the opportunity seems to be there for the taking. Sorry: anything less will be a disappointment. Yes, the stakes are that high.
It's true, beating the Texans or losing to the Texans (and you can say the same thing about next weeks' matchup with San Francisco) won't exactly foreshadow what's going to happen in the postseason, but it's still a damn good litmus test. And a welcome one. The Bears have proven themselves to be among the NFC's elite, right there with the Giants, the Falcons, the Packers and San Fran. I do not feel confident saying the Bears are better than any of those teams, but I will fight to the death if you say they don't belong in the group.
The game against Houston, then, offers Chicago a chance for separation. The Texans are as good as any team in the AFC, boasting the same 7-1 record and a similarly tenacious defense. Truth be told, both of these teams need this win, if for no other reason than to stroke their fanbase's fragile sense of invincibility.
The Bears and the Texans are pretty similar, and that may be putting it lightly. Forget that they share the same record, look at everything else:
- Each were embarrassed by the Packers for their only loss of the season in front of a national audience.
- Each have scored 12 offensive touchdowns.
- Each have sacked opposing quarterbacks 25 times.
- Each have a consensus top-five fantasy running back.
- Each offensive attack is overly reliant on one player (Arian Foster for Houston, Brandon Marsall for Chicago).
- The Bears' defense is first in DVOA. The Texans' defense is second.
- Each is looking for redemption after a 7-3 start last season was wiped away by season-ending injuries to the quarterbacks.
There are also two main differences. The first is that Chicago's defense scores. Put up seven touchdowns in eight games and, truthfully, even the tremendous J.J. Watt-helmed defense in Houston can't compare. When Football Outsiders said the Bears' D ranks fourth all-time in DVOA, it almost felt low. Yeah, the '85 Bears were good and so were plenty of other units through the years, but the defensive touchdowns really put these 2K12 Bears on their own tier.
The other difference is just as simple to spot: in Chicago, we yell at the television to give our running back more carries. In Houston, they yell at the television to give their star less.
Arian Foster is America's most self-aware superstar, the guy with the most thoughtful Twitter account in sports. He went No. 1 in everyone's fantasy draft and is having a great season: Foster leads the league in rushing touchdowns with 10 and is fifth in yards. Only problem: he also leads the league in carries by a healthy amount. The career of a pro running back is notoriously fragile, and you only need to look to recent examples set by the likes of Larry Johnson and Shaun Alexander to prove the dangers of too many carries. Still: if running Foster into the ground gives the Texans a Super Bowl, I think they'd be OK ruining the career of their best player. Championships: they are truly all that matter.
So, here we go: arguably the NFC's best vs. the AFC's best, a potential Super Bowl matchup even if no one really wants to admit it. Can Chicago's less than stellar offensive line hold its own against Watt and the rest of the Texans' front-seven? Dear lord, probably not. Will the Texans' planned double-coverage of Marshall be as effective as the Packers' Week 2 gameplan against Chicago's star receiver? It's at least possible. But the Bears have made a habit out of keeping the score close against great teams and finding unconventional methods of getting into the end zone against, well, everybody. I'm all for reckless swagger, and it's hard not to boast it while the Bears' D is playing the way it is. There's no prediction here, no false chest pounding. I just like the chance the Bears have this week, one that really lets them prove their worth with all of the country watching. I have no reason to think they'll let us down.