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MINNEAPOLIS -- This wasn't how it was supposed to go.
Lovie Smith should be sitting on a hot seat; Jay Cutler should be showing his hot temper; Brian Urlacher recuperating in a hot tub.
The countdown was supposed to be at two before the whole Lovie Smith-Jerry Angelo partnership caved in like the Teflon roof of the Metrodome. The Lovie era had to end before the Daley era, right?
|Jay Cutler threw three touchdown passes Monday night, including a 67-yarder to Johnny Knox.|
All of us cynical geniuses knew it. The Bears were old, tired, whiny, overhyped and overpaid, as punishing to fans' psyches as the winter wind off Lake Michigan in early December, when you know you still have January and February to go.
The only question was how it would all go horribly wrong and how much it would hurt. The Cubs might dominate the market on civic gloom, but everyone knows that outside of the never-ending parade for the 1985 team, the Bears provide way more agony in the average 16-game season.
This season had an inauspicious 0-4 preseason and, after hope was raised prematurely, back-to-back home losses before the bye week.
All indictments; all illusions.
The Chicago Bears, the team everyone loves to hate on, became the first team in the NFL to clinch a division when they pounded the Vikings 40-14 on the ice rink formerly known as TCF Bank Stadium.
"I know we were picked to be at the bottom of our division and Green Bay and Minnesota at the top," Urlacher said. "You never know what's going to happen."
Now Lovie is the first coach to win his division this season, Cutler finally made the playoffs (first time since high school!), and Urlacher is once again the linchpin of the baddest defense in the land (or at least the NFC North).
I, for one, have been firmly on the bandwagon since the summer, when I predicted the mighty, mighty Monsters of the Midway to go 8-8. Hey, that passed for optimism in Chicago, where Smith was held in less regard than a crooked alderman.
"Chicago is the kind of city where if you're not doing well, they're going to let you know about it," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "And it's nice to be successful, because Lovie really is a great coach, and I can't imagine playing for anyone else."
Smith usually shows as much emotion as a parking meter, but he was glowing after the game in his NFC North title hat and shirt.
"Big win for us tonight, and we're going to celebrate," he said. "It's been awhile since we've been in this position to get a chance to put on the shirt, put on the hat, that says 'Division champs.' But we realize it's just one step."
With the wintry conditions and haphazard preparation making the field a slippery debacle, all the Bears did was set a season high in points and watch Devin Hester break the all-time scoring record for kick returns.
Distractions? Nah. The Bears can talk and complain and preach as much as they want. For now, anyway. They won't be facing the tandem of Brett Favre and Joe Webb on an ice rink in the playoffs.
In a season full of surprises, the Bears continue to find new ways to make their critics look dumber than the commissioner's assessment that the field looked great.
Now the team is poised to take the second seed in the NFC playoffs, provided it can get by the Jets and Packers, and get some help. All that talk about the Super Bowl is still on the table.
"We'd like the bye if we could," Urlacher said. "It's going to be tough. I don't know how tiebreakers work, but we need to win out."
|Devin Aromashodu congratulates Devin Hester after he ran a punt back 64 yards for a touchdown. It was Hester's 14th career return for a score, an NFL record.|
It's been a weird, bumpy road to the playoffs, but really there is no clear path in the NFL, where preseason premonitions are barely worth the time spent reading them. After three years of missing the postseason and three years of utter mediocrity, the Bears turned things around on defense with the addition of Julius Peppers and the reliance on a familiar defensive scheme, while Cutler made progress in his quest to earn franchise quarterback status.
This game was proof positive that Cutler can win big games. He threw three touchdown passes, and they were beauties. Sure, he threw an interception that would have made Favre wince, but Cutler came up the winner.
The Bears told us this season was going to be different, but few believed them. Why should we?
"In training camp, the summer, that's when I think every team in the NFL believes it's going to be your year," Briggs said. "Or at least you like to think that."
Briggs and Urlacher know better. After the game, the longtime teammates dressed next to each other in their locker, giddy with excitement. The goal during camp was to win the division, save Lovie's job and make all the pounding worthwhile. Those goals have changed now. This is a team that matters, and in late December, that's all you can ask for.
"This is why I came here," Peppers said. "I can't say I could see the future, but I could see what kind of team this was. I wanted to be a part of this, and we worked hard for this."
Things looked bleak early for the Bears as Favre, the surprise starter, marched the Vikings down the field while the Chicago defense looked like it was playing on skates. But the Bears settled down, the defense forced five turnovers, and little-used rookie Corey Wootton might have ended Favre's career for good.
And as it so happened, the treacherous conditions worked out for the Bears.
That's no surprise.
Everything has worked out for the Bears this season. That's just how it goes sometimes.
If the NFL forced the Bears and Jets to play in a parking lot next week, Mark Sanchez would probably get run over by Virginia McCaskey.
The most stirring point of the mild postgame revelry was Hester crying on the podium, telling reporters how much he believes in his special-teams blockers after scoring his record-setting 14th return touchdown of his career.
"I really love those guys," he said.
Hester was a rookie when the Bears last went to the Super Bowl, and his career arc has often mirrored his team's. He's been on top, and he's struggled for relevance. And on a night when sure footing was an impossibility, Hester and the Bears righted themselves and proved they can run with anyone.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.