CHICAGO -- It was just like they drew it up in August, when everyone was 0-0 and the sky had yet to fall.
Think back to the unbridled optimism of late summer and then put this image into your mind.
It's overtime, the penultimate game of the season against the hated Minnesota Vikings under the stars at Soldier Field, with fans on the edge of their frozen seats. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson has the ball chugging up the Bears' sideline and Hunter Hillenmeyer wraps his arms around him and pokes the football from his grasp a split-second before Peterson's knee grazes the turf. Now it's time for Bears QB Jay Cutler to unleash his $30 million arm. First play, unheralded Devin Aromashodu, Cutler's training camp pet project, glides underneath a perfectly thrown, parabolic spiral and floats into the end zone. Game over. The crowd goes nuts. Soldier Field salutes. Everyone goes home happy.
Of course, in that fantasy, in those naive times, the Bears' wild 36-30 victory would have implications beyond pride. But in reality, this was a win that meant little more than immediate gratification.
"Yeah, you appreciate it. Is it going to help us make the playoffs? No, that's out the window," Cutler said. "But we were always going to go and fight and try to win ballgames. It's not going to help us get into the playoffs and that's a shame, but we all appreciate it in the locker room."
It will be another week until we know if the Bears' win over fading Minnesota meant anything in regard to the job status of coach Lovie Smith or general manager Jerry Angelo. If anything, maybe it showed that a guy like Aromashodu should have been on the field earlier this season, an indictment against Smith perhaps.
But, really, the future of the Bears' brain trust has probably already been decided and will be revealed soon enough. Taken on its own, this win was simple solace for a group of men who will go on a long vacation starting next week, as they proved they can beat a good team.
"You can't live in the past," Smith said. "It's been documented how the season has gone -- not the way we've envisioned it. When you get to this point, all you can do is play your best ball with the few opportunities you have left. This was one of the opportunities."
Sure, you can't live in the past, but you can revisit it. And Cutler, who has been more maligned in this town than any athlete other than Milton Bradley, Rex Grossman and Mark Prior, knows what you're thinking: Where has this team been hiding?
"That's a good question," Cutler said. "That's what separates the good teams from the great teams and the not-so great teams. Being able to do that on a consistent basis. Once you're able to do that, game in and game out, you're going to have a really good team."
Chicago does not have a really good team. It's a team that coughed up a 16-0 halftime lead that will finish 7-9 with a win over Detroit in Week 17. It's a team that has failed to realize the big moment practically all season, a team that has embarrassed itself on a national stage nearly every chance it got. It's a team that gave up a 30-point second half to Brett Favre and lived to tell about it.
"It was an opportunity to show what we can be in the future," Smith said.
No, he wasn't begging to keep his job, but Smith certainly was happy with the effort his players showed, finally, after his general manager Angelo all but put him on an island before last Sunday's blowout loss to Baltimore.
Hillenmeyer's forced turnover in OT was an homage to Smith's defensive philosophy: Give up the catch and go for the ball. Hillenmeyer could have ended the game in regulation with two possible interceptions, as the Bears missed chance after chance to clinch it. But Favre, true to form, tied it on a 6-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice with 22 seconds left. Hillenmeyer's forced fumble was an unexpected surprise in a season sponsored by Murphy's Law.
"It was a great win," Hillenmeyer said. "But it shouldn't have had to go to overtime. I felt terrible that I missed two picks in the last drive, plays we felt we should make. I'm glad I got a chance to redeem myself."
The winning play was a beauty, and if you're listening, Brad Childress, it was an audible dictated by the quarterback. On the first play of the Bears' second possession in overtime, a called run play turned into a 39-yard touchdown pass that ended 2009 for the NFL, and all but ended a Bears season that has seemed like it lasted the entire decade. Six wins in 15 games never felt so good.
"It was designed to be a run play, but we checked to a go," Aromashodu said. "Basically, if he saw everyone come down, we weren't going to run the ball into a blitz, so we checked to double goes for both receivers, and he made a great throw."
Yes, a great throw. Cutler (273 yards, four touchdowns) made a few of those in this game, firing perfect touchdown passes to four different receivers. And he made some bad ones, too, most notably a "where-was-that-going?" interception at the end of the third quarter that the Vikings turned into a fourth-quarter field goal, cutting the Bears' lead to 23-16 with 12:10 to play.
We had seen that show before. Two weeks ago against Green Bay, in a 21-14 loss, Cutler went 5-of-11 for 35 yards and an interception in the fourth quarter. Last week, he completed 10-of-27 for 94 yards and threw three interceptions. He threw game-clinching interceptions in the season opener at Green Bay and in a five-interception, 10-6 loss to San Francisco. He has thrown 26 interceptions in all, which leads the NFL.
But this team, this Cutler, didn't blow it. The Bears' defense, playing on fumes with three defenders going down, didn't wilt. Everyone kind of came together. It wasn't pretty, but it worked. And it wasn't for naught. Even Cutler admitted that.
"Through all the ups and downs, the roller coaster of this season, the tough plays, the turnovers, and the way this offense hasn't performed, this type of win is good for the team and good for the morale," Cutler said. "Going out there, putting up points, answering the bell, especially in overtime, we had to do it."
Everything you thought would happen in this game didn't.
Peterson had two short-yardage touchdowns, but no runs longer than 10 yards.
This is the NFL, so no one should be surprised the nine-point favorite didn't win. But the way this Bears season has gone, moments like this have been few and far between. When is the last time the Bears have felt good about a win? Sept. 27 when they beat Seattle? The next week when they clobbered Detroit?
It would be easy to say this win didn't matter, that it was too little, too late. Aromashodu's 150 yards doesn't guarantee him a spot next year, though it certainly helps, and Williams' play against Allen doesn't mean he won't have tread marks on his back next year. Hillenmeyer's strip doesn't mean he will be playing linebacker in Chicago next season. And Cutler's four-touchdown game doesn't mean he won't throw four interceptions the next time he goes to the Metrodome.
But if you take this game at face value, it was, well, fun. And the Bears were happy going into their New Year's celebrations.
Chicago WR Earl Bennett paraded through the locker room in a black-on-black bow tie shirt combo with a red sweater over top. "I've got to take a picture of that," Cutler said, laughing.
WR Rashied Davis ragged on Aromashodu as cameras swarmed him, yelling, "He's going to be on the front page of every paper in the state of Illinois! Auburn [Aromashodu's alma mater] is going crazy!"
For putting their bodies through the strain of a football season, the Bears deserve to be happy, if only for a fleeting moment.
"This is the kind of finish we wanted all season long, and finally we got it," LB Lance Briggs said. "It's a positive. The crowd is excited on the big catch, we're excited, everyone is running on the field. That's the kind of feeling you want to have."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.