Sometime during the week leading up to their 20-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, the Bears took another huge step in what they believe is their evolution as a team.
In the not-too-distant past, the Bears hoped to win games like Sunday's. Usually something went wrong and they weren't good enough or mentally strong enough to overcome it.
Super Bowl champions, they knew they could win. They just weren't always certain they would.
That has changed. The Bears team that took the field before a crowd of 55,182 not only knew it could win, it expected to win, and it had nothing to do with being seven-point favorites. Now the Bears are winning games they could have lost, and not that long ago they were losing games they could have won.
For the third straight game, the Bears (3-1) made the critical play at precisely the critical moment. This time it was to win a third straight game for the first time since 1995 and stay within a half-game of the NFC Central-leading Green Bay Packers.
"We feel that if we do what we're supposed to do," said tackle James Williams, "we can win all the rest of our games."
Possible, of course, although the Bears do not play a team currently below .500 until Nov. 25, when they face the Vikings in Minnesota.
But that is too far off in the future for anyone in the locker room to worry about, particularly with the ability the Bears have developed for making that game-changing or game-saving play instead of having it made on them.
The first decisive moment Sunday came in the third quarter. With the Cardinals (1-3) trailing 13-6 but driving at the Bears' 30, safety Mike Brown forced a fumble by tailback Michael Pittman. The ball bounded free at the 31, where cornerback R.W. McQuarters scooped it up and ran 69 yards for the Bears' second long fumble return for a score in two weeks.
"[Pittman] flinched a little bit, and then I thought the ball might be out," Brown said. "I heard the crowd and then saw R.W. and felt like, `Oh, man, it worked.'"
Then, in the final minute with the Cardinals trying to drive for a tying score, defensive end Bryan Robinson made one more of those plays that the Bears so rarely have made in recent seasons. Robinson broke through for a 10-yard sack of quarterback Jake Plummer, and two plays later time ran out when the Cardinals were flagged for a false start with less than 10 seconds remaining. Rules require 10 seconds be run off the clock in such situations, meaning that the game was over.
"My thing was get Jake down, lay on him, hopefully take 15 or 20 seconds off the clock, and fortunately that's what happened," Robinson said.
It was a satisfying end to a game that seemed to belong to the Bears early. They rushed for 100 yards and threw for 100 yards in the first half and controlled the ball for 18 of the first 30 minutes.
Quarterback Jim Miller, who was 15-of-21 for 116 yards and two interceptions, completed his first eight passes, four on an opening drive that resulted in a 46-yard Paul Edinger field goal. It was the first time since the season opener that the Bears had scored in the first quarter.
The Cardinals tied the game with a 40-yard field goal by Bill Gramatica on the following possession, but the Bears answered with James Allen's first rushing touchdown of the season, a 1-yard dive to finish a 69-yard drive with 7:49 remaining in the second quarter. Each team added field goals, Edinger's from 43 yards as time expired to leave the Bears up 13-6 at halftime.
The McQuarters fumble return completed the Bears' scoring. Arizona drew to 20-13 on a 7-yard pass from Plummer to Frank Sanders with less than three minutes left, but the Bears were able to hold on despite not being able to pick up a first down to run out the clock.
More important for the Bears, the win bolstered a team that is playing with more confidence than at any time perhaps since the mid-1990s, when they last madethe playoffs.
"The confidence is growing because we knew we should have beaten Baltimore," said defensive tackle Ted Washington. "We realized we have too much talent on this team to let down."
"I just think the bad thoughts are eliminated from everybody's heads," Miller said. "Guys are thinking positive, thinking good things and that we're never out of a game. We know we've got enough talent to overcome. Even like this, making the dumb mistakes we did and being able to overcome that, that's the sign of a good team. We feel like we're never out of it."
There were questions before Sunday as to how well the Bears would handle success, particularly because they haven't had much practice at it. There may still be questions, but few in the locker room are ready to proclaim success yet.
"Until we beat the top-tier, top-caliber team, there will still be a lot of doubters," said tackle Blake Brockermeyer.
"Whoever is the next real good team we play, if we beat them, we'll show people we're for real. We still haven't done anything yet."
BEARS 20, CARDINALS 13