High hopes lead to high scrutiny for NFC champs

By Dave Fultz

“There goes 16-0,” my roommate jokingly remarked after the Bears 14-3 loss at the hands of the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

While he was surely kidding, I was still forced to recognize that these are the types of expectations that this Bears team must attempt to live up to. When I was a kid, Bears fans were happy when their team could win more than eight games and not embarrass themselves against the Packers.

But now they are the defending NFC Champions, gunning for a trip to Arizona next February for another shot at winning the Super Bowl.

So when the NFL’s opening week came to a close last night, the Bears found themselves in a very unfamiliar position. They are now at the bottom of the NFC North, a division that they are expected to run through on their way to a third straight playoff berth.

Yes, everyone else won and the Bears lost, but the Packers couldn’t even manage an offensive touchdown against a sloppy Eagles squad and the Lions’ and Vikings’ games were closer than they looked. While their margins of victory were impressive, both North squads had their struggles against two teams (the Raiders and Falcons, respectively), that should compete for the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft.

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So Bears fans don’t yet need to get jumpy when they look upward within their division, but the team has plenty of reasons to be nervous when it looks inward at the fallout from Sunday’s loss.

There is not normally much reason for concern when you lose a competitive game to a team that had 14 victories a season ago and is widely considered to be one of the best teams in the NFL. But the Bears suffered some setbacks that aren’t easily correctable on Sunday.

It was easy enough to see that the reason the Bears kept the game close on Sunday was the outstanding play of their defense. They shut down the defending NFL MVP, LaDainian Tomlinson, and one of the league’s most potent offenses through nearly three quarters.

LT, who put up over 2,300 total yards and 31 touchdowns last season, was held to just 25 yards rushing on 17 carries by a Bears defense that had trouble with run coverage as the 2006 campaign wore on.

One of the catalysts for the resurgence of the run defense was, as always, starting safety and defensive captain Mike Brown. When Brown is healthy, he is one of the greatest players on a defense that is filled with outstanding talent. But he hasn’t been healthy, missing 28 games in the past three seasons, and hit another injury wall on Sunday.

After the game, Brown and the Bears called the injury a knee sprain but the outlook looked much more ominous. The team scheduled Brown for an MRI on Monday and the team’s emotional leader broke down while talking to reporters in the locker room.

The frustration is understandable when you consider that Brown hasn’t finished either of the past two seasons and may miss the rest of this year, too.

Dusty Dvoracek, the team’s starting defensive tackle, also went down with a knee sprain against the Chargers. These injuries open up the team’s best unit – its defense – to questions of depth and durability early in a season in which it is expected to be among the best in the league.

This puts more pressure on an offensive unit that didn’t impress in its own Week 1 performance. The offense had three turnovers and its only score, a 27-yard field goal at the end of the first quarter, was one that came on the heels of a Mike Brown interception.

The running game struggled to get moving behind the league’s oldest offensive line and the passing game stalled as a result. The Bears are a team that relies heavily on the ground attack and clock control to win behind its stellar defense, so the importance of winning the battle up front cannot be stressed enough.

You think all of these sour grapes are too much after just an 11-point road loss to one of the best teams in the NFL? Maybe you are right, but hey, those are the expectations that come with winning, and Chicago sports fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dave Fultz is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].