On the Rebound

For a franchise that hasn't had consecutive winning seasons in more than a decade, the Bears have to demonstrate staying power. Even though they will be favorites to win the NFC North, the Bears have to overcome history.

The last time the Bears had an early exit from the playoffs, the team never recovered. A 13-3 campaign in 2001 saw Dick Jauron win Coach of the Year and Anthony Thomas take Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. However, a rash of injuries and playing their home games in Champaign proved to be too much, as the Bears went 4-12 in 2002.

Fast forward to 2006. The Bears are coming off their first NFC North title with an 11-5 mark. Lovie Smith is the reigning Coach of the Year, while Brian Urlacher is looking to add back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year winner to his resume.

Once again the Bears suffered a tough playoff loss. After giving up a league low 12.6 points per game in the regular season, the defense surrendered 29 points to the Carolina Panthers. The defeat dictated the team's off-season plan, which saw the Bears use their first five selections on defense, including their top two picks on the secondary.

"We've made a run and had a good season (in 2005)," Smith said. "We've gone on a long winning streak (eight in a row), and now the next phase we have to go through is how to come back from a tough loss (in the divisional round to the Panthers), when we've been knocked down. This team will get up. That's the next step for us. We can't wait for the season to start. We can't wait to get up, and this time we're going to handle success a lot better."

Now the pressure is on Smith and the Bears this season because of raised expectations. Players are already talking about the Super Bowl and every practice concludes with the team breaking on a chant of world champs.

Smith stated three goals when he took over as head coach: beat Green Bay, win the division and hoist the Lombardi Trophy. With Smith at the helm, the Bears are 3-1 against the Packers and 2005 brought a sweep of their archrival for the first time in 14 seasons. The Bears are in search of consecutive division titles, something that hasn't been done since the team won five straight titles from 1984-88. With several firsts piling up, the final objective of winning the Super Bowl is now seemingly obtainable.

"Last year we talked about having a good season and winning the division and things like that and we're talking about the same thing now," Smith said. "We know what it feels like. We know there are changes, it's a different year, but we feel like it's a good ball club."

The problem is "good" isn't enough anymore. Nothing less than a return trip to the postseason and a degree of success will suffice.

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