LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears could be playing the 12 apostles, quarterbacked by honorary apostle Brett Favre, in the lost city of Atlantis, with the game beamed to every planet in the solar system, and Lance Briggs would say it's just another (yawn) game. Charles "Peanut" Tillman would say the Bears are taking it one game at a time. Check that, one play at a time. Jay Cutler would shrug, as if it's all been done before. Lovie Smith would say, "Apostles? What Last Supper? We're worried about tonight's dinner."
Reporters were fishing this week, trying to hook the Bears into saying something inflammatory, or even noteworthy, about this Sunday night's opponent, the powerful and exciting Atlanta Falcons, who stole a game from the Bears last year. It was a game that wound up costing Chicago a playoff spot. No one really bit. Sure, Adewale Ogunleye said watching film of last year's loss got him steamed and he even uttered the words, "national TV," on Thursday, but mostly, it was a trip to the Lake Forest Banal.
"I think it's important to win every game," Briggs said. "For us, it's a one-week-at-a-time deal."
You don't say? Note to the reliably funny Lance: Boring answers didn't get Brian Urlacher those seven-figure endorsements. And speaking of The Domed One, this game is the perfect time, the perfect place, for Briggs to take the reins as Bears Defensive Superstar. People in Chicago may not know this already, but in Yuma, Ariz., or Norwich, Conn., Urlacher is the Man. People have asked me why Briggs isn't as well-known nationally, and the answer is pretty simple.
Urlacher came first, first of all, and he was immediately billed as a "different" kind of linebacker, because he could move all over the field and deliver punishing hits and he looked like a linebacker. It didn't hurt that he played the Bears' marquee position, middle linebacker like Dick Butkus. Urlacher became a familiar name to national broadcasters and writers, and like Pro Bowl voters, it's just easier to flog the familiar.
Sure, Briggs makes Pro Bowls and he gets paid like a Pro Bowler, and he's the star of every opposing offense's film session. But he and Tillman, veterans of a Super Bowl team, still aren't national guys, the kind of player who their peers are compared to. When's the last time a national TV talking head said a young linebacker is a "Lance Briggs kind of guy," or a cover corner has that "Peanut Tillman game?" They need to showcase themselves, sans Urlacher, on a national stage to get tongues wagging.
So these guys can swear on a stack of "T.O. Show" scripts they're not especially jacked for this nationally televised Sunday night game, but they're lying. They're lying with crooked smiles and mischievous glints.
Falcons tight end, and future Hall of Famer, Tony Gonzalez didn't mince words talking about the added pressure of a Sunday night game.
"You've got everybody watching you," Gonzalez told Atlanta reporters this week. "Your whole family is watching. Your fifth-grade P.E. teacher is watching you. It's one of those things where you want to go out there and put on a good show. It's going to be fun."
If you don't think Sunday Night Football is important, just go back a few weeks and re-read the national reaction to Cutler's four-interception debut on Sunday night in Green Bay. I think Jerry Angelo is still having nightmares about watching that one in the press box.
Everybody was talking about that game, using words like "disaster" and "bust" and "disastrous bust." If Cutler plays well, he can turn that game into an aberration and reclaim his national reputation. And don't think that doesn't have any bearing on these athletes. Everyone wants to hear their names mentioned among the best, even if their families are the ones doing the listening and the relaying, as it often happens.
Zack Bowman, the Bears cornerback trying to make a reputation for himself, nearly admitted how pumped he was, before reverting to quotespeak.
"I'm very excited," he said. "It's an opportunity for me to go out there and play ball and make some plays. "
Wait for the cliche
" We're just going to take it one play at a time."
I know the NFL math. A win is a win and a loss is a loss. But playing the Falcons, on the road, in the prime-time slot, is more important than playing the divisional foe Lions if your goal is gauging your team's worth a quarter into the season. The Falcons have an exciting, young quarterback, a great running back, two playmaking wide receivers, one Hall of Fame tight end and a very good offensive line. Their defense is capable, though not especially scary. This is a playoff team, but it's one the Bears can beat, and should be competitive against.
This is a road game the Bears can win. The Georgia Dome should be a haven for a Bears team that is suddenly very fast. Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett could use this game to put their names into national conversations as top-flight receivers, with Knox on the radar for rookie honors. Should Devin Hester have a huge game, his Q-rating shoots up to 2005 standards, when he was running by the whole league.
Aside from Cutler and his three-headed monster of wideouts, the defense has the most on the line, as far as national reputation. When Urlacher went down, it was the biggest story in the league. Aside from Cutler, he was the only truly national player on this team, even though he wasn't even its best linebacker. So Briggs and Ogunleye and Alex Brown and Tillman and Bowman, and certainly Nick Roach and Pisa Tinoisamoa (who should play his first game since the season opener) are going to hear their names being called on national TV in front of the whole football universe. The question is: How will they be looked upon? The Falcons' offense is definitely the headliner in that matchup, and the game, for that matter.
The 3-1 Bears are 3½ point underdogs to the 3-1 Falcons, and everyone is going to be talking about how good Matt Ryan is -- maybe how much better than Cutler? -- and how tough Michael Turner is, and how wild last year's 22-20 Falcons win was.
"Deservedly so," Ogunleye said of Atlanta's hype. "We look at it in the way that, hopefully, on national TV, we'll show we're just as good."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.