Shattering underwhelming expectations

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Bears are 2-0 and the prevailing chatter du jour is that: No One Saw This Coming.

Of the "experts" who predicted the outcome for the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and ESPNChicago, only two picked the Bears to beat Dallas, which opened as a 9 to 9½-point favorite, the second-highest spread of the weekend, eclipsed only by Green Bay over Buffalo.

Why was everyone so virulently anti-Bears? It's not hard to figure out. We were blinded by a technicality-aided win over Detroit and most of us were still suffering an enduring sense of Lovie-lag. The negative groupthink was predicated on the sins of the past.

With everything going against the Bears, it's hard to imagine how we missed their instant success.

After all, we love the NFL for its anarchic unpredictability as much as for the carnal violence and ample opportunity to wear billowing jerseys.

Unlike baseball and politics, in the NFL, your team is an annual contender, which is why the Bears' three-year playoff hiatus is even more infuriating and why Cleveland Browns fans deserve our sympathy.

After a 7-9 season, and even with some noteworthy additions -- headlined by Julius Peppers and offensive coordinator Mike Martz -- the Bears were still mercilessly panned by every prognosticator, pundit and problem-seeker who could spell NFL.

Sports Illustrated had them ranked near the bottom of the league. None of ESPN's experts picked them to make the playoffs. Even local reporters were decidedly negative, or at least, ambivalent.

Bears fans, the people who should be homers, were morose, with die-hards predicting 3-13 records in the hope for a sea change in the organization and based on an 0-4 preseason/lingering Super Bowl hangover.

With everyone picking against the Bears, it makes perfect sense that they have started out 2-0. Jay Cutler looks like a top-tier quarterback running Martz's system and the defense is crowing about a return to "Monsters of the Midway" football.

"When guys come across the middle, we want them to know they're going to get hit," said safety Chris Harris. "We're going to try and punish you for catching the ball, if you catch it. That's kind of mentality we want to have."

I'm not getting Bear goggles here; two wins mean very little in terms of
forecasting a 16-game season. Remember the Bears' 3-1 start last season? They impressed a lot of people by beating the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers in the second game.

This time around, the Bears were supposed to beat Detroit at home, which they did in a lucky, almost comical manner, so essentially they're one game ahead of the pace by beating an 0-2 Dallas team that looks to be on the brink of disarray.

Concerns exist: The offensive line is pretty much as bad as predicted, the running game has yet to get untracked and special teams are a concern.

But still, 2-0 is 2-0 and it's obvious the team's strengths could make up for its weaknesses. Maybe a little adversity is good, especially this early.

"Nobody picked us to win," Harris said of the Bears' 27-20 victory at Dallas. "We kind of like it that way."

Of course they do.

The Bears, for whatever reason, have a resounding "us against the world" mentality. Given the negative tenor of the articles the Bears don't read and the analysis they don't listen to, I'm sure it's even greater than before.

Harris is a social media junkie and a Twitter user of Roger Ebert proportions. He knows what's being said, then and now, and he said it inspires him, if not his teammates. Like most players, if he misses something in the media, his family clues him in.

"A lot of people had us picked to lose," he said. "My wife even said something to me. She watched the pregame show and named all the analysts who said we were going to lose. So that was kind of impressive to me."

But after the game, Harris checked Twitter and said he got a resounding amount of real-time fan mail.

"Everybody was excited to get the win in Dallas," he said. "The buzz is kind of floating around here in Chicago now that we're 2-0."

Harris is right. It is an exciting time in Chicago, and certainly an opportune time for the undefeated Green Bay Packers to come to town for "Monday Night Football." This game is being looked upon as a statement game, and for sure, fans are finally excited about a Bears game again. It's been awhile.

A win over Green Bay (early 3-point favorites) and expectations will eclipse the unfounded optimism that followed Cutler's arrival last year, fair or not.

Even if Chicago loses to the Packers, the schedule is starting to look more welcoming. That road game against the Giants in two weeks looks eminently more winnable after New York's loss Sunday night, as does a late December home game against the Jets. Ten wins looks possible without a tray of shots.

"We're two games into the season," Smith said. "You want to set the bar in the first game and make improvements in the second game, which we've done. Can we be a good defense, team, all that? Yes, we can. But we've got a lot of improvements to make.

"We feel real good about what we've been able to accomplish to get to 2-0. We're going to be so much better a football team later on, once we keep tightening up on some of these things."

For a week at least, the present is bright and the future is malleable.

Cutler is the top-rated quarterback in the NFL, Devin Hester is making circus catches, Brian Urlacher is hitting people, and people are starting to come around to the potential of this team.

Optimism, like good hitting, is contagious. It'll be interesting to see if both continue to spread.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.