In general, John Fox’s first season with the Bears has gone as expected.
The 0-3 start, the offense and defense showing steady improvement, a few newcomers and rookies making an impact, winning some close ones, losing some close ones and an easier second-half schedule setting up a strong finish has the Bears’ rebuild on track. If the Bears win their winnable home games against the 49ers, Redskins and Lions, they’ll finish at least 7-9 and head into the 2016 season with momentum and a healthy Kevin White — with the only offseason anxiety being Adam Gase’s possible exit to take a head coaching job.
The only thing missing from that equation is a signature win — an upset victory over a contender that confirms the rebuilding of the Bears is real and not just the product of NFL mediocrity. The Bears have beaten the still-formative Raiders (4-6); the Chiefs (5-5) in the midst of a 1-5 start when Jamaal Charles was injured early in the second half; the faltering Chargers (2-8) and the slumping Rams (4-6).
They all count, of course, but some victories mean more than others. Facing the NFC North-leading Packers and Aaron Rodgers in a prime-time game at Lambeau Field — with the emotion of Brett Favre/Ron Wolf/Bart Starr Night presents a monumental challenge but a huge opportunity for a Bears team that is making progress. A loss won’t break the Bears’ season — as it did last year in an inglorious 55-14 debacle — but a victory could make their season. Not because the Packers are Bears’ fans hated rival, but because this game forces the Bears to do something they’ll eventually have to do to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl — reach another level; respond to the moment; and beat a team that can win the Super Bowl.
Bears coach John “It’s all a problem” Fox doesn’t quite see it that way. A win is a win, whether it’s against the 7-3 Packers or the 3-7 Lions.
“They’re all so hard to get,” Fox said when asked if he believes in “signature” wins. “There’s no cupcakes. Everybody’s good. Just look around the league every week — even the experts, they can’t figure out who’s going to win the game.
“It has nothing to do with record. Obviously it’s a division game, we put a lot of stock in. It’s a red-letter game for us. I’m sure it is for them. It’s a conference game — we didn’t get our first one of those until a couple of weeks ago [against the Rams]. So we’re in a situation where it’s an important game regardless of who it’s against.”
The Bears have lost five consecutive division games and 11 of their last 12. Outside of the fluky win at Lambeau in 2013, when Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in the first half and was replaced by Seneca Wallace, the Bears haven’t won a road game against a division opponent that finished with a winning record since 2007, when they beat the Packers and Brett Favre 27-20 at Lambeau Field.
Fox knows how important those games are. In his first season at Carolina in 2002, the Panthers had lost 13 consecutive division games when they faced the 9-6 Saints at the Superdome in the season finale. The Saints were tied for second in the NFL in scoring under offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy (28.4 points per game) and had beaten the Panthers 34-24 at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte seven weeks earlier. But Fox’s (and Jack Del Rio’s) defense shut down McCarthy’s offense as the Panthers knocked the Saints out of the playoff race with a 10-6 victory.
The Panthers, who won four of their last five games that season to finish 7-9, carried that momentum into the 2003 season, when they won their first five division games in an 8-2 start, finished 11-5 and went to the Super Bowl.
Sounds like a plan.