Panthers Helped Define Bears Season

The Bears had several big wins throughout the season, but the victory over the Panthers might have been the one that put them on the map in the NFC.

The Bears began talking playoffs, among themselves, way back in training camp - bold words for a team coming off a 5-11 campaign. But that talk was muted after a 1-3 start in which they scored 10 points or less in all three losses.

Doubts crept in, doubts that maybe an emerging defense wouldn't be enough to get the Bears to the destination they had been discussing since the summer - Detroit and Super Bowl XL.

Eventually the NFC North champions got their groove back. The disappointing start was followed by eight straight wins, and at some point in that streak, players regained the swagger that they'll carry into Sunday's divisional-round playoff game against the Panthers at Soldier Field.

Coincidentally, it was a 13-3 declawing of the Panthers on Nov. 20 that a lot of Bears credit for restoring their confidence.

"For me personally it was after the Carolina game because everybody predicted them to be Super Bowl contenders," defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "That was the turning point for me when we beat them."

The Panthers were picked in at least one national publication to win the Super Bowl, but the Bears' defense dominated them, sacking Jake Delhomme eight times, all of them coming from the defensive line, including three by Ogunleye and two by Alex Brown.

"That did a lot for the D-line," Ogunleye said. "I always thought that we were a good defensive line, we just weren't getting opportunities. In that game we gained a lot of momentum. That game helped us out mentally, that and the Tampa game. We'd been saying, 'We're a great defense,' but that's the game we went out and proved it."

Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who led the Bears with 25 special-teams tackles and was named to ESPN's all-pro team for his work, didn't join the team until Aug. 29, when he was acquired in a trade with the Dolphins. He was inundated with playoff talk from the time he arrived and couldn't help but be taken in.

"I became a believer my first week here because we were talking championship and we hadn't played a game," Ayanbadejo said. "I didn't know anything about the Bears. All I knew was their record last year, and I started just buying into the system and believing."

But after the early bump in the road to the playoffs, the faithful were wavering in their devotion. The first five wins in a row helped, but the next three sealed the deal.

"Once we got past that (1-3 start), we won the games we were supposed to," Ayanbadejo said. "Then we won the games that made people believe in us. First people said, 'You didn't beat a playoff team.' Well, we beat Carolina. Then they said, 'Well, you didn't beat a playoff team at their house.' Then we beat Tampa Bay. 'Well, you can't beat your nemesis,' (they said). "Then we beat Green Bay.

"It was like somebody kept coming up with something else, and we used it. We challenged the guys. We said, 'Hey, this is what they're saying. We can't do this, we can't do that.' And we went out and did it, and I think that really helped our guys see just what their potential and ability were."

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