For a week, the Bears did everything they could to avoid calling it a “must” game.
That’s because losing a “must” game leaves you nowhere to go the following week.
But after the Bears easily handled the Vikings at Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon, some players were considerably more honest about how a three-game losing streak might have intensified what was a growing crisis of confidence.
“It was huge for so many reasons,” said safety Chris Conte. “After last week and everything bad that happened, because it’s a home game against a division opponent, this close to the playoffs, we knew we had to have this game.”
The direction of their worry might now be about injuries rather than ego, but a victory definitely lifted the spirits of a group that watched a lot of painful video last week.
“We can destroy all that film,” said Henry Melton, who sacked Vikings QB Christian Ponder on the first play of the game after registering goose eggs on the stat sheet last week. “That wasn’t us last week. We worked on some small details we had to correct, and those little things lead to big plays.”
It’s not as though the Bears cleaned up all their problems, and facing an opponent far inferior to the last two, it began with a circus of errors Sunday.
Matt Forte fumbled on the Bears’ first play from scrimmage when he bumped into fullback Evan Rodriguez, giving the Vikings a short field and the first 3 points of the game.
But that was an important stop for the defense, which was invisible in San Francisco. A quick touchdown off a turnover might have had the Bears wondering if the wheels were ready to come off again.
On the Bears’ second offensive play, center Roberto Garza stepped on Jay Cutler’s foot, which was good for a 5-yard sack.
On third down of that series — the fourth play for the Bears — J’Marcus Webb missed an assignment on a stunt and Cutler had to run for his life before taking a hit, which bought the tackle a verbal undressing from his quarterback.
On the ensuing punt, Armando Allen downed the ball when it looked like it might have another 20 yards of roll in it, bringing a cascade of boos from the faithful.
Not the start the Bears envisioned after the humiliation last Monday.
But it all came together on the next drive when Nick Roach forced an Adrian Peterson fumble and the Bears moved 34 yards in six plays for a 1-yard Michael Bush touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
“When our offense gets a lead, we can make any team one-dimensional,” Melton said. “Makes the game a lot easier on defense.”
The biggest play of the game came from the defense with the Bears ahead 10-3 early in the second and the Vikings threatening.
On third-and-6 from the Bears’ 12, Ponder had Kyle Rudolph open in the end zone after the tight end beat Major Wright, but when Ponder floated the pass, Conte came from 20 yards away and knocked it down.
“I’m basically playing numbers to numbers there, reading the quarterback, but I was on the other side of the field,” Conte said. “I had to go a ways but (Ponder) was looking it down the whole way.
“I thought about picking it, but (Rudolph) can really jump so I just made sure there was no catch.”
Instead of a 10-10 tie, the Bears blocked the field goal, the score remained at 10-3, the offense went 80 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown, and the game was pretty much over with four minutes left in the first half.
From there, it was a more traditional Bears victory, complete with horrid turnovers by the opposition, a decent Bears running game and Cutler making big throws while keeping plays alive with his feet and improvising behind a rebuilt offensive line.
Both starting guards — Chris Spencer and Lance Louis — went down with knee injuries and were replaced by Edwin Williams and demoted tackle Gabe Carimi, further complicating a mess up front.
“I’ve never taken reps at guard, except maybe in a Senior Bowl practice a couple years ago,” Carimi said. “I got a lot of help from the others guys on assignments.”
Mostly the help came from Garza, who kept the line from disintegrating.
“Gabe is a professional,” Garza said. “It’s a tribute to our guys that two starters go down and two guys who haven’t practiced all week step in and do the job.”
The Bears also lost Devin Hester (concussion), Charles Tillman (ankle) and Forte (ankle), but the Vikings dug too deep a hole too quickly for it to matter Sunday.
“Every player has to think like a starter,” Garza said. “You’re only a backup until the starter gets hurt, and then you’re the starter. No one wants anyone to get hurt, but you have to be ready.”
Cutler took some big hits, again, but you could tell he was fine by his demeanor. He alternated between yelling at his line, his receivers and himself, and three times he cursed at the Bears’ sideline when plays were delivered late.
He also picked up an unsportsmanlike for flipping a ball at corner A.J. Jefferson on the sideline but later took pity on Webb when he got down on one knee to tie the big man’s shoe.
“I loosened it and tied it,” Cutler said. “I guess my fatherly instincts kicked in there.”
So all is well again in the Land of Lovie.
After losing to a pair of good teams, the Bears beat up on a bad one, as is their custom, and next up in Chicago on Sunday are the Seahawks, probably missing both their starting corners to suspension.
Seattle (6-5) flew 5½ hours to Miami, gave up 17 points in the fourth quarter to the 29th-ranked offense, and flew home another 5½ hours with a heartbreaking defeat and a 1-5 road record.
Yup, this time next week the Bears should be 9-3 and talking about the Super Bowl again.
In the week-to-week NFL, it was a good week for the Bears.
ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.