As Rex Grossman jogged onto the field to direct the Bears' first drive of the second half Sunday night, the frigid Soldier Field crowd erupted.
The cheer had been rivaled to that point only by the announcement that the temperature had dropped from a windchill reading of 3 below zero at kickoff to 6 below in the first quarter.
Watching offensive highlights from the first half of the Bears' 16-3 victory over Atlanta proved equally as numbing, unless one counts extracurricular activity.
Frustrated by Kyle Orton's 2-for-10 performance and, more specifically, by being missed on a route where he felt open in the end zone, Muhsin Muhammad unleashed a season's worth of frustration on the rookie quarterback.
The players were separated by center Olin Kreutz. Grossman then offered a different kind of separation.
Taking his first regular-season snaps of 2005, Grossman came out firing, jazzing the crowd of 54,771 and a national TV audience watching the Bears' first prime-time performance of the season.
Suddenly, a dormant passing game awakened. And third down no longer seemed a precursor to a punt.
Showing no effects from the broken left ankle he suffered during an Aug. 12 preseason game in St. Louis, Grossman directed scoring drives on his first two possessions and finished 9 of 16 for 93 yards and an interception.
With Minnesota losing earlier Sunday, the Bears can clinch their first division title since 2001 with a victory on Christmas in Green Bay.
Coach Lovie Smith turned to Grossman after the Bears managed just four first downs and 12 yards passing while taking a 6-3 halftime lead.
Offensive starters greeted Grossman with handshakes and back slaps, almost rivaling the roar from the crowd. Grossman's first pass, a 22-yard dart, fittingly went to Muhammad.
Grossman then fired a 10-yard pass to Justin Gage to convert the Bears' first third down of the game. They had gone 3-for-30 in that department over the previous 2 1/2 games.
Grossman tried to force a pass to Muhammad near the end zone that Keion Carpenter intercepted. But Carpenter fumbled the ball, and Gage recovered at the 1.
Thomas Jones, gritty with 91 yards on 27 carries, scored on the next play for a 13-3 Bears lead.
Meanwhile, the league's top-ranked defense was busy making life miserable for Michael Vick.
The tone was set on Atlanta's opening possession when Brian Urlacher hit Vick so hard on a scramble that the elusive quarterback fired the ball at the linebacker in frustration.
As expected, the defense played with three new starters as Mike Brown and Chris Harris succumbed to their calf and knee injuries, respectively, and Leon Joe replaced Hunter Hillenmeyer (broken thumb) at strong-side linebacker.
Mike Green, one of new starting safeties with undrafted rookie Brandon McGowan, had a huge game with an interception and a hit on Michael Jenkins that led to a Nathan Vasher interception.
Green's pick led to Grossman's second straight scoring drive that included third-down conversions of 10 yards to Muhammad and 19 yards to Gage. Robbie Gould's 39-yard field goal gave the Bears a 16-3 lead with 53 seconds left in the third quarter.
Such a lead seemed inconceivable with the way the Bears' offense began the game.
After no offensive penalties last week in Pittsburgh, Bernard Berrian and Ruben Brown were whistled for infractions on the opening possession. The Falcons declined Brown's hold because Rod Coleman sacked Orton.
The Bears failed to gain a first down during a first quarter in which they went three-and-out four straight times and managed 2 net yards of offense. Orton missed on all five of his passes.
The Bears played with fire on the field-position game, starting doomed drives on the 2-, 3- and 10-yard lines in that first quarter.
Atlanta finally took advantage and broke through on a drive bridging the end of the first and second quarters. Cam Newton's block in the back on DeAngelo Hall's nifty punt return cost Atlanta 38 yards in field position.
But Vick found Brian Finneran for 12 yards to convert one third down, Warrick Dunn rushed for 17 yards and Vick converted another third down with a 14-yard quarterback draw. The 12-play, 56-yard drive led to Todd Peterson's 30-yard field goal with 10:16 remaining before halftime.
The Bears responded on the ensuing possession, finally posting a first down when Orton hit Berrian for 12 yards on the drive's first play. Then a Berrian end-around that got sprung by Gage's block and ended 37 yards downfield surprised Atlanta.
Gould's 35-yard field goal tied the game 3-3 when the seven-play, 52-yard drive stalled.
After forcing the Falcons to punt on a three-and-out possession, the Bears took a 6-3 lead on Gould's 29-yard field goal with 3:20 left before halftime. Berrian's 24-yard punt return set up the Bears at the Atlanta 44, and Muhammad drew a 25-yard pass-interference call on Hall on the Bears' first play from scrimmage.
The Bears finished their home schedule with a 7-1 record, matching the home mark posted by the 2001 playoff team.
Defensively, the Bears allowed just 236 yards. And now the offense, which had managed just three touchdowns in the previous four games before Sunday, seems to have new life.
Legends grow off these kinds of games. In 20 years, fans who attended will say it was 30-below and that Grossman threw six touchdown passes.
Offensive hope is enough reality for now.
firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun