Jay Cutler goes down courtesy of defensive end Justin Tuck on a most agonizing night for the Bears -- Oct. 3 at the New Meadowlands, where the Giants finished with 10 sacks while embarrassing the visitors 17-3.
It's the midpoint of the season, and Bears' destiny still a mystery
When you think about the lasting images from the first half of the 2010 Bears season, a confused and concussed Jay Cutler walking toward the opposite sideline at New Meadowlands Stadium leaps to mind, as does Brian Urlacher stripping James Jones, allowing Tim Jennings to recover to set up the winning drive against the Packers.
The first eight games haven't wanted for memorable moments, such as the frozen image of Cutler clearly holding the ball across the plane of the goal line on a play Lovie Smith failed to challenge. Remember Julius Peppers' diving interception of the pass he tipped against the Panthers? And there goes Devin Hester on a punt return, the hash marks a blur beneath his feet.
We know where the Bears have been, but we don't know where they're going. We may think we know, but we really don't because the halfway mark in the season also is the tipping point. What takes place starting Sunday against the Vikings at Soldier Field could result in a mass exodus of coaches and front-office employees from Halas Hall or a sudden surge of ''In Lovie We Trust'' bumper stickers across Chicagoland. It could mean everything, or it could mean nothing at all if a labor stoppage puts the 2011 season -- and the futures of executives, coaches and players -- on hold.
''We're probably not going to have a season next year anyway, so it's not going to matter,'' Urlacher said.
Oh, it's going to matter, all right, at least eventually. Here's what it's going to take for the Bears to make this a second half to remember:
We can talk about protections and pre-snap reads and whether receivers are where they should be. We can examine Cutler's decision-making and Mike Martz's play-calling, but the success of the offense largely will be determined by the offensive line's ability to get off the ball and keep their feet moving. People can point to Martz's complicated schemes all they want, but there's a bloody-knuckled simplicity to what has been lacking. This team can't be effective as a finesse-only unit. It has to become more physical, and it starts up front with the offensive line.
That group needs to take the next step and start delivering blows instead of absorbing them. It needs to start Sunday against the Vikings' physical front seven.
''We've had a bunch of [tests],'' offensive line coach Mike Tice said. ''This will be a good one. You know, this won't be a scheme thing. Some of the challenges we've had have been scheme things. This will be like the Giants game: Are we man enough? So we'll see. It'll be fun.''
He may as well have been talking about the entire second half.
The fear heading into the season was that this group wouldn't get consistent pressure even with Peppers, which has been the case. What people didn't expect is that the back end of the defense would do so well. Jennings and D.J. Moore have been welcome additions, and Peanut Tillman -- with one exception -- has been steady.
Pressure still is what makes this defense most effective, which makes the performance of Peppers critical. The Bears will need him to make strip-sacks and interceptions in big games in the second half the way he did against the Lions and Panthers earlier this season if they want to go 5-3 against quality teams, which is likely what it will take to win the division.
The more active and productive he is, the more offenses will have to focus on him -- making it easier for Israel Idonije and others to make their presence felt.
''I'm having fun playing with the guys, playing with a bunch of great players,'' Peppers told the Minnesota media this week. ''The system allows me to let loose and make plays.''
The more plays he makes, the greater the odds of this team accomplishing what it set out to do.
Dave Toub's units need to continue to do what they've been doing -- make a positive impact in every game. The Bears' specialty units are ranked eighth in Rick Gosselin's special-teams rankings, meaning there's room for improvement.
Another punt returned for a touchdown by Hester or a kickoff returned by Danieal Manning and/or Johnny Knox could win a game that ultimately could decide the team's playoff fate, as could a field goal by Robbie Gould.
''It's a great scheme played with great effort,'' Vikings coach Brad Childress said. ''Usually, somewhere along the line, whether it's blocking a field goal or returning a kick or setting up something, they always find a way to contribute.''