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ARLINGTON, Texas -- They told us so.
For one week anyway, we saw more than a flash of potential, were handed more than empty promises.
In a game they were expected to lose and in which they could have gained respect merely by giving the Dallas Cowboys a decent fight Sunday, the Bears finally took a significant step in showing fans and foes alike what they are capable of.
They said they knew it all along.
|Jay Cutler passed for three touchdowns and no interceptions on Sunday against the Cowboys.|
"We practiced for this. We prepared for this. And that's what we expect to do," defensive tackle Tommie Harris said after the Bears' 27-20 victory. "No surprises."
And, of course, that's what they should say.
But this was a surprise. And it was a big deal. Only twice since 1991 have the Bears begun the season 2-0 and it was their first win in Dallas since '86 against a team many had picked to go to the Super Bowl. But more than that was the fact that while far from perfect, the Bears offered simple but tangible evidence of progress.
"It starts with Jay Cutler," said Bears coach Lovie Smith. And to be sure, Cutler's performance -- 21-of-29 for 277 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and his fourth-highest career QB rating of 136.7 -- was the sort that you can see springboarding him to more consistency this season.
As a team, the Bears showed resiliency. They shook off a poor start and a game-ending injury to starting left tackle Chris Williams. And they halted the Cowboys' early momentum that came with a 62-yard punt return by Dez Bryant to give Dallas a 7-3 lead, by scoring three plays and a minute and a half later.
Cutler called that touchdown -- a 39-yard catch-and-run to Greg Olsen -- the turning point of the game despite the fact that it gave the Bears only a three-point lead in the first quarter.
"We were reeling a little bit and sometimes it just takes one play to turn the momentum around," Cutler said of the first touchdown scored against the Cowboys' defense in three straight games. "I hit Greg, he's gone, and we're right back in it."
With favored receiver Devin Aromashodu inexplicably sidelined on offense for most of the game, Cutler followed through on his promise to bring Devin Hester back into the fold. Though Hester would still have a modest four receptions on the day, a 9-yard beauty went for a second-quarter touchdown in the corner of the end zone, and another for 38 yards set up the Bears' last touchdown of the day. Cutler also connected with Johnny Knox on a 59-yard completion that set up the Hester score.
For us, there's a group that has been trying to tell us what type of team we are, and we've been saying exactly what type we are and this is a good football team. But you have to get wins to validate that. This win, I think, put us a little bit closer to more people believing in us.” -- Lovie Smith
The fact that Cutler survived to that point was a testimony to the adjustments made by offensive line coach Mike Tice and the determination of Frank Omiyale, who was shifted from right tackle back to his old position at left to compensate for Kevin Shaffer, Williams' original replacement.
Cutler was sacked twice in the first two possessions, and hit seven times in the first three. Shaffer, meanwhile, was hit with consecutive false-start and holding penalties that limited the Bears to a 38-yard field goal by Robbie Gould on their second series.
"It was so rocky those first two or three series, but guys just stuck in it," Cutler said.
His team leading 20-14 at the half, Smith gave his team a little pep talk.
"It was a signature game," he said. "At halftime, we talked to the guys about putting their name behind a second-half performance and really the entire game."
Perhaps because the bar was set so low, it seems so much higher now.
Encouraged by Smith, shouldn't we expect by now that the Bears consistently lead the turnover battle? And yet, it was a welcome and seemingly forgotten sight for the Bears when Charles Tillman thwarted a Cowboys drive on the Bears' 37 by forcing a fumble recovered by Brian Urlacher.
Surely, the Bears were not perfect. They were a miserable 1-of-11 on third-down conversions. Hester let a perfectly thrown ball by Cutler bounce off his hands near the goal line. The secondary still allowed 34 completions by Tony Romo for 374 yards.
But Lance Briggs and Urlacher are back to being a dominating force. Nickelback D.J. Moore with two -- albeit fortuitous -- interceptions is still an impressive and instinctive player.
And the Bears ran a quarterback sneak and succeeded on a fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 24 on the last possession of the first half, leading to a 40-yard field goal by Gould.
"What fourth-and-1?" said Smith, actually flashing some humor when asked about it. "We have to be able to get that. Those situations, I have a history now "
It was a well-earned comeback, to be sure. And a satisfying moment for Smith after handing the Cowboys their first 0-2 start in nine years in his home state.
"Whenever you come back home, you want to do well in front of a lot of people who care about you," he said. "For us, there's a group that has been trying to tell us what type of team we are, and we've been saying exactly what type we are and this is a good football team. But you have to get wins to validate that. This win, I think, put us a little bit closer to more people believing in us."
Their next game, against Green Bay on "Monday Night Football," will come soon enough. And there will be more stumbles. But for one day, there was real progress.
"I think we're a lot better than people think," Olsen said.
We shall see.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.