In 2004, the Bears discovered how much they needed Brian Urlacher, when he missed seven games with injuries. They went 0-7 without him and 5-4 with him.
They're hoping they won't find out how much the injured five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker means to this year's team, and the news on Monday was encouraging. Urlacher was walking around Halas Hall in the afternoon without any trace of a limp after his MRI that morning revealed he had suffered a sprained big toe on his left foot near the end of Sunday's loss to the Dolphins.
"It's a big relief," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Brian means quite a bit to our football team. That was cause for concern, but we feel a lot better about it now. I know he felt a lot better (Monday). I think if you asked him, he'll probably say he's planning on practicing Wednesday. Brian is a quick healer as he told me this morning, so hopefully he'll be able to go and get some practice in."
But Urlacher did not talk to the local media on Monday. He did, however tell FOXSports.com: "If it's up to me, I will (play). They told me it all depends on how much pain I can take. I can deal with that."
The 7-1 Bears won't know for sure until later in the week, but they're hopeful that the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year will play in Sunday's showdown for NFC supremacy at the Meadowlands against the 6-2 Giants. Without Urlacher, the Bears would be missing their leading tackler and their inspirational leader. He had a game-best 16 tackles against the Dolphins and leads the team with 95 tackles this season. He has led the Bears in tackles five of the past six seasons.
When Urlacher was sidelined two years ago with a calf and two hamstring injuries, Hunter Hillenmeyer moved to the middle from the strong side to fill in. That's a possibility Sunday if Urlacher can't go, which is still a possibility.
"I play Mike (middle linebacker) in practice every week, so it's not something that would be a big deal," Hillenmeyer said. "But I don't think that's going to happen. It's just getting acclimated to being in a certain spot, but I don't know if there's any reason for us to be talking about this."
The Bears might instead move weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs to the middle. Briggs joined Urlacher in the last Pro Bowl, he's the team's second-leading tackler and he worked some in the middle during training camp this year. That would keep Hillenmeyer on the strong side, where he might be the Bears' best match-up against Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, an elite receiver. Leon Joe would be the likely choice then to take over for Briggs on the weak side.
Regardless of how the bodies are shuffled, the Bears could not replace the athleticism and play-making that Urlacher brings to the lineup.
"Obviously if something like that ever did happen, we'd be ready, we'd be okay, but Brian's such a leader out there, and he's a guy that we need," Hillenmeyer said. "He's probably as important as anyone in this locker room in terms of having him on the field and what he brings as a player and as a leader. I was relieved to come in and find out that the (results) were positive."
Other teammates also seemed to already be counting on having Urlacher on the field Sunday.
"I told you he was the Terminator," defensive tackle Tommie Harris said. "I didn't think he was going to be down. The guy fights through injuries."
But when he doesn't, the Bears struggle to win.
"He felt better (Monday), and we'll just see how it goes for him this week," Smith said. "A lot of times when you're dealing with a rib injury, it gets better quickly, and Bernard was a lot better, so we're hopeful for him."
Even Berrian's breathing appeared labored Monday and there is almost no chance he'll be available for Sunday's game against the Giants at the Meadowlands. He might not play in any of the three straight road games.
So the Bears need to find someone to fill the void left by the absence of their leader in receiving yardage (495), who suffered bruised ribs after he caught a 10-yard pass on the first offensive play of Sunday's loss to the Dolphins. No. 3 receiver Rashied Davis caught a season-high five passes against the Dolphins, but for just 40 yards. Backup Justin Gage caught two passes for 51 yards but lost a fumble that thwarted a Bears scoring drive and set up a TD for Miami. Neither provides the deep threat of Berrian.
The wild card is Mark Bradley, who became a starter as a rookie last season but suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in his breakout game, a 5-catch, 88-yard performance against the Lions in less than half a game. The Bears say Bradley has recovered from his surgery and a sprained ankle that have kept him inactive the past five games, but he's been a ghost this season. Still, he's bigger and stronger than Berrian and almost as fast, and Smith claims he's capable of giving the Bears a lot of what they miss without Berrian.
"As you recall, the last time that Mark played a game that meant something to us, he had a good football game," Smith said. "He has a lot of talent. He's had a chance to observe quite a bit. He's probably tired of doing that. "If we need him, hopefully he'll be ready to go."
None of the Bears expected to go 16-0, but several were shocked to lose at home, where they had outscored their first four opponents this season 152-30. But Sunday the 57,531 in attendance (4,675 no-shows) rarely had cause for excitement.
"We play anybody at home, we should win," special-teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "We play the ‘85 Bears at home, we should win. The stadium was dead. We were dead. It was kind of surreal."
The temptation for Lions fans is to look at a win as a rarity, a once- or twice-in-a-season occurrence to be treasured but not to be viewed as an indicator of good things to come.
And, for the most part, that has been a sound approach to a team that has won only 23 of its last 88 games and only twice in 5 1/2 seasons has put together back-to-back wins. Along the way there have been numerous false alarms that inevitably led to disappointments — for instance, the 4-2 start that preceded the firing of Steve Mariucci in what developed into a 5-11 record last year.
But with the 30-14 upset of Atlanta behind them, the Lions are approaching a portion of their schedule that gives them a chance to put together a few wins.
They have San Francisco coming up Sunday at Ford Field, followed by a Nov. 19 game at Arizona and the traditional Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field, this time against the Dolphins.
Even with a sweep of those three games, however, the Lions would be a game under .500, and the remaining five games on the schedule are a sobering thought — on the road against New England, Green Bay and Dallas, home games against Minnesota and Chicago.
So perhaps that is why coach Rod Marinelli prefers the Lions to keep their focus on the job at hand and never mind what might — or might not — lie ahead.
"I think we're starting to sense the energy that we want," Marinelli said. "Right now, my biggest concern is that we come back with the consistency, that we come back this week and practice again this week really fast, really hard. Then take it into the next game, next Sunday and play with the consistency we want."
There will be plenty of time to talk about the Lions being "on a roll" later, perhaps after they put together another of those rare two-game winning streaks.
"I'm just standing up for myself," Kitna said. "I'll always do that."
But to his Lions teammates, it was an indication that Kitna has the toughness and determination that makes him an exceptional leader for the entire team, not only the Lions offense.
"Quarterbacks always talk tough — blah, blah, blah, we're going to do this, we're going to do that," defensive tackle Cory Redding said. "But when his number was called, he stepped up in there and started throwing blows. That's what you want to see out of any player on the field, not just the quarterback.
"That's what you want to see out of anybody that plays football — that nastiness, that toughness, that ‘I don't care how big you are, how small, whatever. If you're going to come and test me, so be it. We're going to go.'"
Redding was not advocating indiscriminate violence but, rather, a player's right to defend himself from what was viewed as a cheap shot.
Kitna slid at the end of a 17-yard run, basically giving himself up. But Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall arrived moments later, slamming Kitna in the side of the helmet and touching off the brief melee.
Redding said he taped the game at home and replayed the incident several times Sunday night.
"Man, I rewound it like 10 times to see him get up and not even hit the guy that hit him," Redding said. "But he saw another (uniform) color and went at him. Like temporary insanity, he just went after him, and that's what you want to see. I'll have that guy in my foxhole any day."
At times they have seemed to run out of energy. Other times they have not been able to protect a late lead, in part because they couldn't control the ball in the late going.
In fact, the Lions went into the Atlanta game averaging just 27 minutes, 48 seconds time of possession in their first seven games of the season.
In the 30-14 victory against the Falcons, however, they controlled the football for 32 minutes, 56 seconds — roughly five minutes more than they had averaged in previous games — and they were in no danger of letting it get away at the end.