Ever since training camp the Bears' goal was simple: win the NFC Central Division and then worry about what happens next. Sunday the Bears achieved that goal and then some, trampling the Jacksonville Jaguars 33-13 to clinch their first division title since 1990.
But their 13-3 record did more than just make the playoffs.
Mike Ditka and 1934 Bears (13) of George Halas on that list.
To celebrate coach Dick Jauron joining those names in the Bears' pantheon, his players bought him a drink. Or rather, they poured it over his head--defensive tackles Keith Traylor and Ted Washington doused him with a Gatorade shower as the clock ticked down and players donned "NFC Central Division Champions" hats as long as the supply lasted.
"Well, I like this hat, I'll tell you that," Jauron said. "I'm glad I got it coming off the field because they ran out fast in the locker room."
If players and everyone else were scrambling for mementos from this victory, it was with good reason. The win gave the Bears a week off while wild-card games are played in Green Bay (vs. San Francisco) and Philadelphia (vs. Tampa Bay), meaning that the Bears are two games from the Super Bowl.
The Bears will open the playoffs Jan. 19 or 20. They'll play the Eagles if they beat the Bucs. Otherwise, they play the Packers-49ers winner.
Players understood the significance of the bye week followed by a home game.
"Regardless of the conditions [in Chicago], we've got the bye week," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who contributed one of four sacks by the defense and finished the season with a team-high 10.5. "Whoever we're going to play is going to have to come into Soldier Field."
NFC home playoff teams are a combined 10-0 the last two seasons. As important for this team, the Jauron Bears are 4-0 after weeks off, including two wins this season.
"I just look at the records. Most teams that come out with a bye usually win their first playoff game, so I'll take my chances," said defensive end Phillip Daniels.
The Bears not only put themselves in good playoff position, they also have quietly improved in the closing weeks of the season, scoring 27, 20, 24 and 33 points in the last four games and posting an average winning margin of 18 points in that span.
The Bears could also have gained the bye week had the Green Bay Packers lost, which they didn't. "We knew we wanted to take care of business and take care of ourselves and we did that," quarterback Jim Miller said.
The Bears' pass rush, which got to Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell four times Sunday, has 16 sacks over the last three games. The defense intercepted Brunell three times and held tailback Stacey Mack, who had rushed for 100 yards each of the last three games, to 66.
The offense put up 33 points on a Jaguars defense that had been fifth in the NFL in points allowed at fewer than 17 per game. Miller went his third straight game without an interception, completing 19-of-28 for 159 yards and a touchdown, while running back Anthony Thomas rushed for 160 yards, 151 over the final three quarters, and finished the scoring with a 2-yard run midway through the fourth quarter.
The Bears, as they have the last several weeks, took care of business early, scoring the game's first 20 points. A blocked Jacksonville field-goal attempt on the Jaguars' second possession was converted into a 47-yard Paul Edinger field goal late in the first quarter. A 2-yard run by Leon Johnson capped a 54-yard drive in the second quarter, and one play later an interception by cornerback Jerry Azumah set up a 23-yard field goal for a 13-0 halftime lead.
Jacksonville sacked Miller and recovered a fumble at the outset of the second half. But defensive tackle Keith Traylor intercepted a screen pass at the Bears' 24 and returned it 67 yards to the Jacksonville 9. Two plays later Miller hit David Terrell cutting across the middle and the rookie went in for the score.
Jacksonville scored on a 15-yard pass from Brunell to Keenan McCardell, whereupon kicker Mike Hollis, who ripped coach Tom Coughlin publicly last week, missed the extra point. He was then replaced by Coughlin with former Bears prospect Jaret Holmes for the remainder of the game and has played his final game for the Jaguars.
Edinger converted from 25 yards for his third field goal of the game on the Bears' next possession, then added a fourth after Colvin gathered in his second interception of the season on a ball that bounced off the hands of Mack and the helmet of teammate Alfonso Boone.
Thomas built the lead to 33-6 before Brunell finished the scoring with a 3-yard pass to Jimmy Smith.
Afterward there was some celebrating with hats and a T-shirt emblazoned with "NFC champions."
"Good T-shirt," assessed linebacker Warrick Holdman. "I'm going to wear it about a week straight."
But the sense of perspective that has characterized this Bears team all season was still in place.
"Chicago should strap on their party boots and let the party begin," Miller said. "But we're not done yet."
BEARS 33, JAGUARS 13