CHICAGO -- With only the smallest degree of self-awareness, the Chicago Bears would have recognized Sunday for what it was: A near-disaster salvaged only by an arcane NFL rule and a team in even more flux than they are.
But for better or worse, the Bears viewed their 19-14 victory against the Detroit Lions as vindication of what they considered a meaningless preseason. To be sure, they pounced on the opportunity to gloss over four turnovers, nine penalties and a second-half deficit they couldn't overcome until 1 minute, 32 seconds remained in the game.
The Lions might be the Bears' only opponent this season who are unequipped to capitalize on such a disjointed performance. And yet the first post-game sentence from Bears coach Lovie Smith was this: "It's been a long time since we've been at the top of our division."
And here was the second: "We wanted to come out and play well."
I think we can agree that the Bears won Sunday. At 1-0, they are tied with the Green Bay Packers for first place in the NFC North. Beyond those facts, you would hope the Bears would realize it took a special set of circumstances to get to that point -- not the least of which was Lions receiver Calvin Johnson's inability to maintain possession of a potential game-winning touchdown -- and accept the gift they received with appropriate humility.
But not long after Smith declared his team in first place, linebacker Lance Briggs took the opportunity to declare victory against the "critics" who had criticized the Bears' defense during the preseason.
"All the critics," Briggs said, "you know what they can do. [Brian Urlacher] went out and balled today. All the guys that people have question marks [about], went out and balled today. We played good defense."
Quarterback Jay Cutler, meanwhile, reminded a group of reporters that "we had 400-plus" yards of offense and interrupted several questions about the nature of the win.
"I think we won the game," he said. "That's on the scoreboard. We've got some things to fix, but we won the ballgame."
Obviously, those statements are all accurate. Trust me, I know you don't care what players say to reporters and how it sounds. But when a team starts patting itself on the back for winning the way the Bears won Sunday, you wonder if they realize how much harder it's going to get. It brought to mind last year's victory against the Lions at Soldier Field, after which Bears players had me convinced they had built an intangible swagger that would push them to the playoffs.
If you recall, the Bears proceeded to lose eight of their next 10 games.
You can use the old every-year-is different argument, but 20 of the Bears' 22 starters Sunday were a part of that team. I would hope they would use a victory against the Lions as a learning tool, not a soapbox. I've always found that the more someone tells you how good they are, the more reason you have to question it.
Without a doubt, there was a lot to like about the Bears' performance Sunday. When he wasn't being harassed by the Lions' defensive line, Cutler consistently found open receivers downfield and finished with 372 passing yards, the second-highest total in his career.
Tailback Matt Forte displayed the skills that have caused many to suggest he is a perfect fit for the Mike Martz offense, converting a screen pass for an 89-yard touchdown just before halftime and then hauling in an acrobatic 28-yard scoring pass for the game-winner.
And defensive end Julius Peppers led a defense that held the Lions to 20 rushing yards and 13 first downs. (For those keeping score, Peppers is now 1-for-1 in knocking out NFC North quarterbacks after his second-quarter sack of the Lions' Matthew Stafford.)
But come on. The Bears might have had 463 offensive yards, but they fumbled three times in Lions territory. They might have sliced the Lions' woeful secondary, but not before Cutler took four sacks and was hit on seven other occasions. They might have looked sharp on their winning drive, 56 yards on six plays over 1:49, but they were stunned after leaving Johnson in single coverage for what was nearly a 25-yard touchdown with 24 seconds remaining.
As we discussed earlier, referee Gene Steratore's crew got the call right. But that's how close the Bears were to losing their home opener to a spunky but deeply flawed opponent whose franchise quarterback was sitting on the sideline with his arm in a sling.
The events of the game conspired to validate the Bears' bravado, if for only one day. No example was more obvious than Smith's decision to eschew a field goal on 4th-and-goal from the Lions' 1-yard line with 9:04 remaining. The Lions led 14-13 at the time, but after coming up short on their first three plays, the Bears chose instead to send Forte plunging into the line for the third time in four plays.
For all of his attributes, Forte was one of the NFL's worst goal-to-go running backs last season. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Forte scored only three touchdowns on 33 goal-go-go situations. It was an odd call on top of a questionable decision, at best, but one that Smith explained by suggesting he was confident his offense would soon get the ball back for another chance.
"I felt like we were playing great defense," Smith said. "I just didn't feel good about having three points in that situation. The worst-case scenario would have been for us not to get it, and we have them backed up. I felt like we could still make them punt and get good field position. It's a field-position game throughout. I would make that call every time."
You could argue that taking the lead, no matter how small, should have been the Bears' top priority. Smith would have none of it.
"I made the call," he said. "I felt good about it, and we ended up winning the game in the end. That call helped us win the game in the end."
Not exactly. Smith made that call and the Bears won. There's a difference. Understanding that distinction, and reacting appropriately, will be the true Week 1 test for the Bears.