Back on Oct. 10, when the Bears were 1-3 and coming off a 20-10 loss the day before to the last-place Browns, even their most avid supporters had shovels in hand and were tossing dirt on the team's playoff hopes.
Coach Lovie Smith called a staff meeting that day — not to bury the Bears, but to praise them. That meeting was recalled late Sunday night on the bus from O'Hare Airport to Halas Hall after the 11-4 Bears clinched only their second playoff berth in 11 years with a 24-17 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field. Quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, defensive backs coach Perry Fewell and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake were basking in the glow of success and reminiscing about that get-together 11 weeks ago.
Smith told his staff: "Guys, at the end of the year, we're going to look back at this meeting, and we're going to laugh and say we made the playoffs and we were 1-3."
Since then, the Bears have gone 10-1, and regardless of what happens Sunday against the Vikings at the Metrodome, they will have a first-round bye and host a second-round playoff game, making a prophet out of their coach.
"I'm telling you, he said that," Rivera said. "Wade reminded us of it, and we all kind of chuckled about it. He never stopped believing. You look at those things and the things that coach Smith has done for us this year, and you most certainly have to say he is coach of the year."
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner credits Smith's attitude at that meeting as a turning point in the season. The Bears had been held to 10 points or less in each of their three losses and were starting rookie Kyle Orton at quarterback and another rookie, Mark Bradley, at wide receiver. But Smith, who spent Monday attending funeral services for James Dungy, the son of Colts coach Tony Dungy, wasn't discouraged after his team's poor start.
"I remember that meeting," Turner said, "and to me that's a tribute to Lovie, and Lovie being positive, being confident and basically telling us, ‘What we're doing is good. Let's just stick with it. Let's just keep doing what we're doing, and we're going to weather this storm and get through it.' I think that was a huge message that Lovie sent to all of us.
"You're sitting at 1-3 after that Cleveland loss. Everyone (on the staff) could have been down, and we could have stayed down, and the team would have reacted that way. But Lovie didn't let that happen. He believed that we were going to get it turned around. He believed that we were good a football team and it was just a matter of getting everything going, and he sent that message to us loud and clear. I think because of that, we sent it to the players loud and clear, and we just kept battling through and won eight in a row."
Back then, there were plenty of Bears critics who anticipated the team going in the opposite direction and living down to the preseason expectations. But, according to his top assistants, Smith never believed the doubters and never lost faith in his organization or his personnel.
"We were supposed to be 3-13 according to a lot of people," Rivera said. "We were supposed to be last in the NFL and the 32nd-ranked team. But he never stopped believing, and he got us to believe in ourselves and believe in each other. To accomplish what we did this year, and to not have a lot of people behind us, is a great testament to coach's belief in the players and in the team and the systems that we have. It really is kind of an eerie feeling to be in our position right now when there were so many doubters."
Those misplays kept Rex Grossman (11-for-23 for 16 yards) from having a more impressive day statistically, but the quarterback said that wouldn't prevent him from depending on the Pro Bowl wide receiver in the future.
"I have a good rapport with him," Grossman said. "I think Kyle (Orton) and I have a good rapport with him. He runs great routes, and just recently he's dropped a couple, but it's not like I'm going to shy away from him. He's an all-pro receiver, and he's going to make that play (in the end zone) 99 times out of 100, so I'm just going to keep going back to him."
Muhammad admitted to the end-zone drop but said he'd get over it.
"You're only as good as your last game, and I've got a chance to play another one, so I'll be back," he said. "I was looking at the ball, (but) every now and then you drop balls. It just happens. It's not back to the drawing board. I don't need to reinvent the wheel; I just need to catch them."
"There were a lot of people to blame on that, and I'm not going to name guys," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "Obviously, the punt was short and had low hang time. We were playing for a high pooch kick, and obviously our gunners are coming in from behind to defend the goal line, that's the way we do it. When (Chatman) has his the ball in his hands that quickly, he's a dangerous returner.
"We really take pride in our coverage. Those guys were mad as well and disappointed. Everybody. I thought we could have covered harder."
Backup linebacker Jeremy Cain is the Bears' backup snapper, but he's never snapped in the regular season.
"I told him Saturday night, ‘Are you ready to go?'" Toub said. "I probably shouldn't have done that because he probably didn't sleep all night. But Pat made it back, and everyone is fine at home, and he's got a baby girl and everybody is happy."
To the unenlightened, the closing seconds of the Lions' 13-12 victory over New Orleans might have had the appearance of disorganized chaos.
But they wouldn't be entirely alone. The enlightened — including interim coach Dick Jauron — weren't totally enthralled with the frantic execution of the game-winning field goal as the game clock ticked off the final seconds.
Ideally, quarterback Joey Harrington would have spiked the ball after completing a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Roy Williams at the Saints 21-yard line. The field-goal team would have had time to enter the game, set up in an organized fashion and execute the 39-yard kick.
In fact, it looked as if that was exactly what Harrington was going to do until he and others on the Lions offensive team realized the special teams unit already was sprinting onto the field.
The offense dashed off the field, holder Nick Harris positioned himself at the 29-yard line, long snapper Don Muhlbach delivered the ball, and Hanson kicked it between the uprights as the final seconds ran off the clock.
"It was really one of those situations where it was not exactly how you wanted it, but thank God you had worked at it enough that they knew exactly what to do and they did it," Jauron said.
The confusion apparently stemmed from the fact the Lions special teams players were not 100 percent certain Williams had gained the necessary yardage for a first down. Had he been short on the third-down play, they knew they would have to rush onto the field to execute the field goal.
Leaving nothing to chance, they dashed onto the field with the clock still running but were able to execute the play and salvage the win.
"We practice that all the time," special teams coach Chuck Priefer said. "They got on the field, kicked it and everything was fine. Nick got ‘em on the line, got ‘em reported and did a great job; then Jason put it through."
Harrington wasted a 16-play opening drive by being intercepted in the New Orleans end zone. At other times, his passes were off the mark — high, low, behind, in front of receivers.
Williams, for the second time in three weeks, dropped a well-thrown pass running a slant pattern that might have resulted in a touchdown.
But in the closing moments of the New Orleans game — with the Lions running their two-minute offense to overcome a 12-10 Saints' lead — Harrington and Williams made up for their earlier shortcomings by connecting for gains of 40 and 15 yards to set up Hanson's game-winning field goal.
"I felt like I let me teammates down once again because I'm too worried about getting into the end zone before catching the football," Williams said, referring to his earlier glaring drop, "so I told them right at halftime, ‘I promise you anything that comes my way, I'm going to catch it, no matter where it's at.'"
For Harrington, the win was at least a measure of vindication after he had twice lost the starting job to Jeff Garcia during the season.
"There have been times when my coaches didn't believe in me and when guys on the team didn't believe in me, but I never lost faith in myself," he said. "I know it's just one win in a season that's been pretty long for everybody, but it still makes you feel good."
Jauron gave the players an option of returning to Detroit on the team plane Saturday night after the game against New Orleans at San Antonio, or going elsewhere to spend Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with their families.
Their next team activity will be on Wednesday when they meet and begin preparations for the season finale Sunday at Pittsburgh.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
New holder, same miserable results for once-automatic kicker Ryan Longwell.
However, Longwell did anything but blame newcomer Ryan Flinn for two missed field goals in the Packers' 24-17 loss to Chicago on Sunday. If anyone were to be held responsible, though it was by no fault of their own, it would be members of the grounds crew at Lambeau Field.
Flinn explained after the game that wet paint contributed to the first of Longwell's misses, a 38-yard attempt that sailed wide right in the second quarter.
The paint used to mark the yard lines on the grass surface rubbed off on one end of the K-ball put in play for the kick. According to Flinn, that end of the ball was too slick, and he couldn't stop the ball from spinning as Longwell approached it.
"That, I've never had that before," said Flinn, who held in college at Central Florida. "It's a little different when you have paint on the ball. The way I hold, I apply pressure on the tip of the ball to get it to stop. And, it just kept turning, even though I was pushing down on it.
"The ball was still rotating around when Ryan got to the ball. That messes with the rotation with the ball (on the kick) and definitely with the kicker, mentally."
Flinn was a bizarre story in his own right as he made his NFL regular-season debut Sunday. The Packers signed him just three days before the game after he stood out in a workout with three fellow free agent punters. Flinn had been bartending in Orlando, Fla., the last four months after he was released by Atlanta early in the preseason.
Flinn replaced B.J. Sander, who suffered a season-ending bruised knee in the previous game, as both the Packers' punter and holder.
Holding issues involving Sander early in the season set the tone for the least-productive season in Longwell's nine-year career.
He's misfired on seven of 24 field-goal attempts, including a 39-yarder that he also pushed wide right in the third quarter Sunday.
"Ryan should have made (that) second one," coach Mike Sherman said Monday after reviewing the game tape.
Longwell has missed as many as seven field-goal tries in a season only twice — he was off the mark 11 times in 2001, when he made a career-low 20. This season, Longwell has 79 points, meaning it's practically a given his streak of 100-point seasons will end at eight.
"My confidence is high. I have no reason not to be confident," said Longwell, whose contract expires after the season. "The ball is flying far, and it's flying straight when the ball is there."
It's another matter, however, when there's paint on it.
Flanagan made it through only the first two offensive series in the 24-17 loss to Chicago on Sunday. He aggravated the sore groin that's plagued him since he underwent Oct. 5 surgery for a sports hernia.
"There's a lot of soreness, which is causing him an inability to function and doing certain movements," Sherman said.
Flanagan, who's due to become a free agent at season's end, insisted on coming back three weeks after the surgery and has started the past nine games.
"If he feels healthy enough to play, then he'll play," Sherman said of Flanagan's status for Sunday's game against Seattle. "If he doesn't feel healthy enough to play, we certainly won't put him out there. Here's a guy that was champing at the bit two weeks after his surgery to play and doing everything he could to get himself back on the field. I don't know many players that would have done what he did, getting out there and playing in the pain that he has played with throughout this season. It's a credit to him and his commitment to this team."
Grey Ruegamer, who started the game Sunday at right guard, moved to center when Flanagan departed. Scott Wells slid over from left guard to right guard, and Adrian Klemm came off the bench to man left guard.
Gado, an undrafted player who made a name for himself with three 100-yard games and six rushing touchdowns in the second half of the season, sustained a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee during the Dec. 19 loss at Baltimore.
Gado didn't play in the last game, but Sherman said he's "doing much better this week than last week. He actually made a turn at the end of the week. I'm not exactly sure what that means. Obviously, we're not going to put him on the field unless he's 100 percent, or close to it. So, we'll wait and see on that."