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Haugh: It doesn’t matter how Bears won, they won

Published: Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 10:15 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Temperatures dipped into the lower 40s and blustery winds whipped around Soldier Field during the Bears’ 23-22, come-from-behind victory Sunday over the lowly Panthers. But did the elements surrounding the game remind anybody else of the desert?

Remember Monday night, Oct. 16, 2006, in Glendale, Ariz.? The Bears trailed a one-win Cardinals team 23-3 with less than a minute left in the third quarter. Their offense got lost somewhere in the Grand Canyon and their defense did little early to lead the way out of the darkness.

They won anyway.

A defensive touchdown started a swing of 21 unanswered points and the Bears escaped with a big 24-23 victory on a bad day. They turned a negative into a positive and used that experience as a cure for complacency the rest of a special season. The Bears of ‘06 were who Dennis Green thought they were, a resourceful team that would go on to win the NFC championship.

Six years later, Panthers coach Ron Rivera avoided a Green-like rant after blowing a 12-point lead with seven minutes to play, but these Bears remain who everyone thinks they are despite the obvious letdown: A team capable of playing in the Super Bowl.

Nothing that happened in a sloppy game changed that. Not the offense managing a meager 210 total yards and neglecting running back Matt Forte. Not the defense doing everything but offer Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith turndown service to make him feel comfortable in Chicago.

Surviving the 1-6 Panthers thanks to a last-second 41-yard Robbie Gould field goal represented a good win more than a bad sign for the Bears. Skeptics will remain unconvinced until the Bears beat a playoff-caliber team such as the Texans or 49ers but, in the NFL, apologies need not accompany victories of any kind.

“It’s so hard winning in the league,” coach Lovie Smith said.

If the Bears already hadn’t shown signs of being one of the NFC’s elite teams, worry and cynicism might be more appropriate. But an awful first 53 minutes against the Panthers didn’t suddenly expose the Bears as a flawed football team. It exposed them as a flat one. Period.

From the first series when Jay Cutler underthrew an interception into what looked like triple coverage, it was clear the Bears did not have Carolina on their minds. They had fallen into the same trap that ensnares so many teams after “Monday Night Football” appearances, the one that makes it impossible to sense urgency.

It happens.

Championship teams find ways to win on their worst days the way the Bears just did. Forgive me for not letting an understandable letdown for three quarters change an opinion formed over the previous six games. Fans felt disappointed enough to boo — a natural reaction — simply because they had grown so used to cheering a team better than many expected.

If you thought the Bears could win the NFC North before kickoff but changed your mind watching the game, you really need to watch more games. You need to remember Bears-Cardinals, 2006.

“There’s no such thing as an ugly win,” Smith said. “The team that deserves it ends up on top.”

The Bears earned it when Tim Jennings intercepted Cam Newton and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. They earned it one play earlier when a revived Cutler found tight end Kellen Davis for a 12-yard TD pass. They earned it when Gould, undeterred by a rare fourth-quarter miss from 33 yards, came through in the clutch as he typically does.

“The best kicker in the league,” Brian Urlacher said of Gould.

To ensure the Bears resemble one of the NFL’s best teams again, the offense must regroup. It starts with coordinator Mike Tice, whose game plan limited Matt Forte better than the Panthers. The offensive line lost too many one-on-one battles and Cutler held onto the ball too long as the Panthers registered six sacks. Bears receivers dropped too many passes the first 53 minutes, when it was assumed Earl Bennett must have been stuck in traffic.

Now would be a fine time for Tice’s offense to start clicking and stop tolerating excuses — which made Cutler’s accountability encouraging.

“No one played well,” Cutler said. “I didn’t play well.”

Yet the Bears overcame because Cutler completed 6 of 7 for 52 yards on the final drive when it mattered most. Because they have a veteran team that knows how to win. Because they refused to believe this wasn’t their day — or possibly their year.

“The football gods are in our favor,” Jennings said.

They smiled on the Bears on Sunday. On a day of survival, it was OK if that was your first reaction too.

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