For wide receiver Earl Bennett, Sunday's 31-26 win over the Eagles, which moved his team to 8-3 and atop the NFC North, was all about the Bears' self image.
"There are those who are going to focus on the stats now that we are in sole possession of the lead in our division," Bennett said in the locker room after the game. "That's fine. But for us, it's about the effort and the emotion. We feel that we're not only the best team in the NFC but the best team in the NFL. We can get this done. Laugh if you want to when I say that, and I know that some people will, but that's the truth as we see it. It's the way we view ourselves, both as individuals and as a team."
Bennett may well have a point, as the Bears' four consecutive victories over the Bills, Vikings, Dolphins and now the Eagles have matched them up against some of the strongest offenses and defenses in the league.
"We heard so much about the Eagles' offense coming into the game," said Bennett. "They were No. 1, they were strong, they were invincible. Heck, we heard that all the pregame announcers picked the Eagles to win today. And, really, that's OK with us. We've come to relish the role of the underdog. It makes every one of our players work just that much harder on the field."
According to Bennett, the lynchpin of the Bears' game plan in Week 12 was to keep MVP candidate Michael Vick and the rest of the Philadelphia offense off the field.
"That Vick, he's playing really well," he said. "He's got great protection out there, great receivers and a strong running game. We definitely wanted to stretch out the offensive time on the field for our side. We knew the game would be close, so the longer we could stay out there, the better. That gave our defense a rest and kept Philadelphia from scoring."
Although the Bears led the game at the half, thanks to two touchdowns from Bennett and an additional score by fellow wideout Johnny Knox, their time of possession only reached 10:37, compared to Philadelphia's 19:23.
However, an impressive, 10-minute third-quarter drive that resulted in a Chicago field goal seemed to turn the momentum around.
"I have to be honest: We were confident at halftime but still realistically concerned about Vick," Bennett said. "We wanted to stretch out our time on the field after the half, give our defense a rest and hopefully get some more points on the board. That long drive worked well for us. I believe it went for 17 plays. That ate up the clock and gave us the time to work out a few things."
Bennett's concern was justified, as Philadelphia came back in the fourth quarter with two early field goals and then a touchdown pass from Vick to tight end Brent Celek with 1:48 left in the game. But Eagles kicker David Akers' onside kick was scooped up by Knox, and the game ended with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler taking a knee.
Bennett himself contributed four catches for 56 yards. It was also the first multi-TD game of his NFL career.
It was almost like he was back on the Vanderbilt campus, where he and Cutler were teammates for a year.
"Jay and I, we've always communicated really well both on and off the field," said Bennett. "His last college touchdown was a pass I caught. I was his receiver during his Pro Day. We had fun, and we played well together. My disappointment in my two previous seasons with the Bears was that I didn't feel I was contributing up to the level I knew I could offer. I had some injuries, some hamstring problems, and just wasn't where I felt I needed to be. That's behind me now, and with Jay as our quarterback, it feels like Vanderbilt all over again."
Bennett seems to thrive in the spotlight, as he continues to improve as a receiver at the game's highest level. Now he hopes that that his team will come into clearer focus with both fans and the national media.
"I used to get upset when I read some things written about the offense early in the season," he said. "All I could see in those articles was how bad we were, how little we communicated, how the game plan was too complicated, how the defense was carrying us through the season. We knew that wasn't true. The communication was always there. The skill level was always there. We just needed to fine tune things a bit. The bye week made a tremendous difference in that effort. We talked things out individually and as a team. A balance developed between our offense, our defense and our special teams."
When asked about the difficulty of the upcoming schedule, with home games against the 9-2 Patriots and 9-2 Jets, along with divisional road dates at Detroit, Minnesota and Green Bay, Bennett simply shook his head and smiled.
"It's that old cliche: One game at a time," he said. "We are healthy, and we are motivated. We have great confidence. We'd enjoy it if people came to regard this team the way we see ourselves. We have good momentum going for us right now. Maybe not being seen as the underdog all of the time would be a positive thing."
One more question: What happened to the two touchdown balls he caught?
"The first one I held on to," Bennett admitted. "Took it right over to the sidelines. When I got the second score, I threw the ball into the crowd. I was thinking at that point that there might be quite a few more of those to come my way during my NFL career."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
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