The Bears have come out of the closet, where one of their biggest hangups was facing the pressures of "Monday Night Football" and not wrinkling up like a cheap suit.
Not only are they alone at the top of the NFC Central at 6-2 with their regular season half over, but at long last they are far from being a half-baked maybe.
This offense, even when it's held below 24 points for the first time this season, makes you believe there could be a point to getting to the playoffs after all. Other than being willing victims.
The Bears could never match the scoring weapons of San Francisco or Dallas in the past, it seemed. No more. A national TV audience was alerted Monday night to a never-say-die Bears offense, as well as a defense that rose up off its death bed and finally roared.
In securing a fourth straight victory by outbattling Minnesota 14-6, the Bears laid to rest the frightening ghosts of Mondays past. This snapped a eight-game losing streak on Monday nights for the Bears, whose 13-26 history on ABC's showcase--the most defeats of any team--is easier to accept now that they are a team with a future.
"This was a real step forward from an attitude standpoint," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I think we've got people's attention, but I told the team before the game if they wanted to make an attempt to separate themselves (from the pack) a little bit, this was it."
The air must indeed be rare in Chicago. First there was Air Jordan. Now there is Air Bear.
Two Erik Kramer strikes within just under 2 minutes at the close of the second quarter were enough for the Bears to survive, thanks to a defense that shook off its critics and, spurred by four sacks, bent but refused to break.
With the Vikings threatening to tie in the final stages, linebacker Barry Minter popped the ball out of Qadry Ismail's possession after his catch and end Al Fontenot recovered at the Bears' 19. The game-turning play that had fallen on the offense's shoulders most of the year was provided by the defense.
"It's a great satisfaction to show people we don't have to try to outscore teams every game to win," safety Marty Carter said. "We have great players on defense. Tonight was a valiant effort toward proving that."
Jim Flanigan embellished his Monday night reputation by catching his second touchdown pass of the season. He can set this 4-yarder alongside the 2-yarder he produced against Green Bay on Sept. 11. This is a ready-for-prime-time player.
"I was kind of tired after all the celebrating," Flanigan joked.
Not so weary, however, that on Minnesota's subsequent drive after his second-quarter score, Flanigan raised his team-high sack total to 6 1/2 by dropping Warren Moon on the first play.
"We've taken so much stuff in the media, and it's been pretty rough on the defense the last three, four weeks," Flanigan said. "I think we have been saying from the start we've got talent. We just need to show it in a hostile situation."
Flanigan's sack enabled Erik Kramer and the offense to retake the field shortly before halftime and deliver a crippling blow with 25 seconds left. Offense and defense were working together for one of the few times this season.
Kramer's rainbow pass found Curtis Conway at the doorstep, just yards in front of the end zone, and he gathered in the ball behind cornerback Alfred Jackson to score on a 48-yard play and establish a 14-3 lead.
"We had to show what we could do when all eyes were on us," said Bears tackle Andy Heck, part of an offensive line that now has allowed only one sack in its last six games, and leads the NFL with a low of four this season. "Good teams win games like this."
Fuad Reveiz kicked a second-quarter field goal from 22 yards after Warren Moon overthrew Cris Carter in the left corner of the end zone. The Vikings had to settle for a Reveiz 43-yarder in the third quarter--the final scoring of the game--after the Bears stopped Moon on third down, though he was a dangerous 11 of 18 on third downs.
The fans didn't hesitate to voice their displeasure. Under attack all season by an unhappy audience, Moon wasn't being supported wholeheartedly here.
Now 3-5, and losers of three straight, the Vikings are certainly on the ropes in the division.
But Minnesota defensive tackle John Randle remained defiant afterward. "I don't think so," he responded when asked if Kramer was one of the league's best.
Kramer knows that respect is won every week, and the Bears still have many to win over.
"People are starting to come around slowly," he said. "People will get behind us if we keep doing this. I was getting the ball out quick because they had a lot of pressure on me."
Moon had more. The Bears' plan was to blitz him early and often.
"Hit him early and let him know we were around," Wannstedt explained. "We mixed up a lot of blitzes."
Things got a little scary for the Bears when Rashaan Salaam fumbled late in the game.
But the damage had been done by the offense in whittling down the clock. The Vikings had just over 2 minutes left, and Moon and his receivers weren't up to the task.
"The biggest thing was to sweep the division champions," said Wannstedt, reflecting on a season-opening 31-14 victory for the Bears against Minnesota. "Monday night. On the road.
"Talent, yes. But it's character. This doesn't happen unless you have guys who are mentally strong."
Those minds are even stronger now that the Monday jinx has been kicked into oblivion.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun