CHICAGO -- The most tired theme in sports has to be "Nobody believed we could do this." Favorites resort to it in every sport. You hear it from league and conference champions after they hoist the winner's trophy or cut down the nets, even when success was predicted for them from day one. Only a few legitimate contenders, teams with a chance to win it all, can say with absolute accuracy that nobody believed they could do this.
This Chicago Bears team, one victory from reaching the Super Bowl, can make such a claim. Nobody outside the Bears' locker room believed they could reach the NFC Championship Game this season. Hardly anybody believed they could reach the playoffs. There was no reason to believe it. Nothing indicated to most of us that the Bears would be any good, much less win their division, earn a first-round bye, win their first playoff game in a romp and then host the NFC Championship Game. There wasn't a hint anywhere that the season would play out this way, not when it began.
They hadn't made the playoffs in the previous three seasons. Their quarterback had led the world in interceptions just last season and hadn't had a winning season since high school. Their coach was on the hot seat; the "Fire Lovie" bandwagon was standing room only. And he was entering the season with a new offensive coordinator, who could easily be described as "eccentric," and a new defensive coordinator who had never before done that job. The offensive line was, um, leaky. The club didn't seem to have made any upgrades at receiver and the team's best offensive weapon, Matt Forte, was coming off an injury-reduced season. The greatest return man in the history of football, Devin Hester, had gone two full seasons without taking back a kick for a touchdown.
Oh, and it would get worse ... or so most of us thought. The team cut Mark Anderson, whom it had prepped to be a big-time pass-rusher. Tommie Harris, once a force, was benched. Then the Bears went winless in the preseason. Oh-fer. There was nothing to suggest to most of us that Green Bay would be coming to Chicago the fourth Sunday in January for a title game. There was no hint, no foreshadowing, nothing like the 2006 team which could have gotten to the Super Bowl the previous year, or the 1985 team which had flirted with greatness the year before. I remember Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman forecasting the Bears would go 13-3 in 1985. We knew. We all knew. Nobody on that Bears team said, "Nobody believed we could do this," because everybody believed.
But not these Bears, especially not after Calvin Johnson appeared to catch that touchdown pass on the first Sunday of the season and it appeared the Lions had beaten the Bears in the opener, at Soldier Field. Of course, a dubious rule saved the Bears in Week 1, and everything changed. We should have seen it coming then. Following that old coach's adage, the Bears won first then got good. And they got some good fortune. That tag team is close to unbeatable.
Don't get me wrong, there are those on the inside who could see it all coming together. Julius Peppers could see it to a great degree, which is why he signed with the Bears as a free agent when just about every team in the NFL would have welcomed him. "It wasn't a roll of the dice," Peppers said, when I asked him to look back. "It was a calculated approach I took. I'm looking at the roster and seeing Jay Cutler, a young playmaker coming into his prime as a quarterback. On the defensive side, I'm thinking, 'OK, if I'm out there with [Brian] Urlacher and [Lance] Briggs we should be in just about every game, just from a defensive standpoint.'
"I looked at the results, game by game, and they were in every game last year. I know we didn't win a game in the preseason, and you want to win every time you walk out there, but preseason is meaningless. Didn't Indy just win a Super Bowl after going winless in the preseason? It's been done. They're glamorized practices. What I saw, honestly, was a team where talent was all over the place."
There was one other thing that convinced Peppers to sign with the Bears: Lovie Smith's presence. If the Bears win two more games, that "Fire Lovie" bandwagon will be converted into a float in his parade down Michigan Avenue.
While the Bears' offense is still particularly average by today's NFL standards, their preparedness ranks right there with the best of 'em. They haven't had a moment of controversy, a moment of off-the-field idiocy that undermines the team. That speaks to the coach, in this case Smith, the same way it spoke to the respect Tony Dungy's players had for him all those years.
Had the Lions won that opener, who knows how the season would have unfolded? What I'd want, though, what Peppers observed before he signed with the Bears, was how Smith ran his program. There's no question the Bears' defenders grow annoyed with Cutler's gambling and interceptions, but you never hear a word about it publicly.
And it was Lovie Smith, when the Bears went into their bye week, who convinced those in the room who didn't already believe that they were good enough to win now. Mike Martz committed to the running game, Cutler realized managing the game is not an insult, and everybody realized the defense and special teams are championship quality.
"The bye week was important," safety Chris Harris said after the win over Seattle, "but after that Monday night win over Green Bay that made us 3-0 I said, 'We're going to be legit.'"
Harris pointed out that the receivers (Johnny Knox, Hester, Earl Bennett) aren't famous, but they're pretty darned good, and that the team has players like Corey Graham, who downed two punts in the shadow of the Seattle goal line, who contributed in unglamorous ways to the building, piece by piece, of a championship contender.
"People were picking us to win six games, be third in the division," Harris said. "And yes, we used it as fuel."
The Bears kept winning, and some of us still doubted. I was one of them. After the opener against the Lions, I saw 6-10 instead of 11-5. The Bears would beat Miami with Tyler Thigpen starting at quarterback, or Carolina with Jimmy Clausen or the Lions with third-stringer Drew Stanton or the Vikings with Joe Webb, and most of us were still waiting for the bottom to fall out.
Even in the past month, when the Packers lost to the Lions, 7-3, and the Eagles lost at home to the Vikings, it looked as if the Bears were more fortunate than good ... except the Bears kept winning.
Part of their preparedness Sunday was jumping on the Seahawks and pinning them to the mat in a way the defending champion Saints could not a week ago. The offensive game plan, except for that insane call to have Forte throw it from the Wildcat that resulted in an interception, was both imaginative and damn well executed. Cutler, except for one pass, had control of Seattle's defense and of the game in general, and clearly he was assisted by Martz's recommitment to running the ball, which has to be re-emphasized between now and the arrival of the Packers.
The 7-0 lead, as it turned out, was insurmountable. "That early touchdown," Peppers said, "gave us an early boost, and we rode it ... It's like releasing a pressure valve on the sideline when they do that, when they move the ball like that."
Peppers walked toward the door, talking about his team's attributes, the things that have served the Bears well all season, subtle characteristics and contributions that outsiders often overlook.
"First, we weren't going to make the playoffs," he said, quoting the skeptics. "Then, we couldn't win the division. Now, I think I hear it already -- " Peppers smiled.
Yes, the Green Bay Packers are favored by the oddsmakers to win next Sunday at Soldier Field. Peppers, with all due respect, will ignore the oddsmakers. "We earned this," he said. "We feel like we can beat anybody."
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.