By Robert Zeglinski
The last time the Bears played in a home Sunday Night Football game, Jay Cutler was the starting quarterback, with hopes of being unlocked under his third offensive coordinator in four seasons in Mike Tice. Brandon Marshall hadn’t yet created a trademark rift and was arguably the NFL’s most productive receiver. And Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, and Lance Briggs, while still great, were in the twilights of their careers.
None of what the 7-1 Bears coming in did mattered as the Houston Texans bruised and battered a team riding high on a six-game winning streak.
On a rainy, muggy November night at Soldier Field, future Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and friends knocked Cutler out of the game early, forcing Chicago to turn to ineffective backup Jason Campbell. Then virtuoso back Arian Foster was the only man to find any offensive success under that national spotlight, rushing for 102 yards and scoring the game’s lone touchdown in an ugly 13-6 defeat for the Bears.
The Bears would go on to lose four of their five games before eventually bowing out of the postseason chase. A fateful November night that was supposed to be a showcase, instead acting as the beginning of the end for the Urlacher era and the last year the previous Bears defense could be considered “good”.
Almost six years to the day this Sunday, the NFL’s showcase primetime slot returns to Chicago, and not a moment too soon. The driver’s seat in the NFC is on the line against the rival Vikings in a budding rivalry. A fascinating matchup full of intrigue across the board in what could be the first of three games between the two this season (including the playoffs).
After winning a total of 14 games in their previous three seasons, yes, the Bears have finally returned to the national limelight. While not quite darlings or Cinderella’s just yet, the 6-3 NFC North leaders have earned enough respect to put their third-biggest television market back to good use. To play in front of a raucous, passionate night crowd at Soldier Field not used to relevance of late.
There are many signifiers of contention and relevance in the NFL.
The first being actual talent.
The Bears are a talented team led by Mitchell Trubisky, who has 19 touchdown passes and a mere four interceptions since Week 4. They have Khalil Mack, one of pro football’s premier defensive game-breakers. They are loaded and deep on both sides of the ball, and seem to have nowhere reached their ceiling to this point. There’s enough excitement and dynamic play to put on display.
The second is that talent playing confidently, together, and unselfishly.
The best example of this is the versatility of the Bears’ offensive weapons. In any given week, it could be Tarik Cohen going off against a defense. It might also be Trey Burton, Allen Robinson, and Anthony Miller. Pick your poison. It might be a combination of this group, such as it was Robinson and Miller against the Lions this past Sunday. If one guy is shut down, this offense doesn’t implode. If two are limited, someone else will still find success.
There are no egos about this needed ebb and flow because it’s an inherent Bears’ strength. Everyone’s going to get their chance to produce in the end, but team success comes first and foremost.
“I may go off one week, Allen (Robinson) may go off one week, it doesn’t matter as long as we get the win,” Miller espoused after Chicago’s 34-22 victory over the Lions, the Bears’ first win over an NFC North opponent since October 2016.
When you have that kind of team balance and chemistry built up to the point where every guy has bought in to the overall mission, regardless of their individual production, you have the makings of something special. When you have guys wanting to contribute individually purely out of the spirit of competition so they can contribute something worthy to the mission, that’s the clear cut recipe for relevance.
What will always be inherently discussed less than these two facets is the national acclaim. At the height of the Urlacher and Lovie Smith era, the Bears were regulars in primetime matchups. From Thursday to Monday, they were a fixture for broadcast networks not just because of the market they played in, but because their team quality was worthy of the attention. You knew you were getting both an entertaining game and a widely viewed one at that thanks to those Bears.
From 2006 to 2012, the Bears played in a whopping 15 Sunday Night Football games, seven of those matchups taking place at home on the lakefront. From 2013 to 2017, Chicago featured in six such games, none of them taking place at home and culminating in 2017 where they were shut out entirely from home or road ventures on NBC.
Team quality was the obvious main factor here as even an average Bears roster likely gets attention for the NFL’s premier regular season stage. The Bears in the last five seasons could be classified as anything but quality. They didn’t deserve any national attention, let alone the main heavyweight even.
Team quality is now the same high class reason that stage comes back to Chicago after such a lengthy absence. Even with so much of the 2018 season left, we know the Bears are good. We know the Bears are relevant in the late fall. That’s enough to give them the Sunday night treatment with a firm stranglehold of a division title on the line against the Vikings a mere four days before Thanksgiving. Whatever happens in terms of results is a different story entirely, but the Bears coming back to this level signifies that they are, indeed, back.
Legendary play-by-play commentator Al Michaels – who will travel to Chicago to announce Bears-Vikings this coming weekend – appropriately summed up the Bears’ return to prominence best when previewing the titanic matchup. A wave of energy with a quality team that isn’t likened to end any time soon.
“Chicago is great, we used to go there a lot, and haven’t been there in awhile,” said Michaels on his latest broadcast on NBC. “I have a feeling we’ll be back a few more times.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.