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It’s the strangest, happiest thing: A Bears regular-season game that matters

How long has it been since the Bears played a regular-season game that registered on the NFL Richter scale? That had Chicago amped up and over-caffeinated and shivering in anticipation of a big showdown?

My records indicate it has been forever.

That might be a slight exaggeration. There probably have been other games in the last 10 years or so that matched the excitement level that’s attached to the Vikings-Bears game Sunday night at Soldier Field.

But that was then, and this is now. Now beats then in a blowout. This is the most self-absorbed era in human history, so, what, you expected me to point to a similarly hyped game from the Jay Cutler era?

Bears coach Matt Nagy, shown here with running back Jordan Howard, has guided the Bears to a 7-3 record in his first year as an NFL head coach. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Jay who?

This is a big game, and the “b’’ and the “g’’ probably deserve to be capitalized. The Bears are in first place in the NFC North with a 6-3 record, and the Vikings are right behind at 5-3-1. The NFL moved the start time from noon to 7:20 p.m., a prime-time recognition of the magnitude of the game and a prime indication that maybe, perhaps, possibly the Bears are on the cusp of something dramatic here.

Been a long time.

“It should be rockin’, man,’’ right tackle Bobby Massie said Wednesday at Halas Hall. “I hope the fans will be into it because it’s a big game for the city of Chicago.’’

The Bears want you to know that it’s never too late to climb aboard.

“Shoot, I’m on the bandwagon, too,’’ left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “I’ve been here for four years, and [our record is] three games over .500, something like that. This is a big deal for everybody in the city. But we know we’ve got so much more left ahead of us, so much more football, so much room to get better. We’re just getting started.’’

Fun?

“I’m having the best time of my life right now playing football,’’ Leno said. “Seriously. No lie.’’

There’s a different vibe when the Bears are playing an all-important regular-season game, a vibe that none of the other sports teams in the city can touch. Some of it has to do with a 16-game schedule and the feeling that every game is important, if not World War III. There’s also the fact that the city’s allegiance isn’t split over football the way it is in baseball between the Cubs and White Sox. Lots of people care a lot about the Bears.

The buildup to the game has reintroduced something to the city that has been missing for a long time — joy. The Bears are playing a game that has heft and importance to it, and you can hear the wonder of it in fans’ voices. The team’s records the previous four seasons were 5-11, 3-13, 6-10 and 5-11. When Bears fans talk excitedly about the magnitude of the Vikings game, I worry about the effect weightlessness is having on their bodies during spaceflight.

Coach Matt Nagy wants fans to be pumped and players to be a bit more grounded.

“It’s great to be able to be in a spot where your games truly matter and it means something,’’ he said. “Whether you’re on our team and you’ve never been in this situation before, now you’ve got to know that the level picks up a little bit. That’s what I’m trying to make sure that these guys understand. This is an important game — get that, understand that. But don’t overdo it to the point where you stress, where you play tight. I don’t want that.’’

The Bears have come so far so fast, another reason why this game is so important. Nagy is in his first season as Bears coach. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, coming off a career-high 355 passing yards against the Lions, is in his second year in the league. Is he for real? Let’s find out against an extremely tough Minnesota defense.

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“I think Mitch will be great,’’ Massie said. “This is probably the biggest game Mitch has played in his career so far. I think he’s going to go out there and shine.’’

When I started writing this column Wednesday, the computer asked me to name the file. I typed in “bearsbiggame’’ and was told that file already existed. Hmm. I opened it. The column was from 2012, and the 7-1 Bears were about to play 7-1 Houston in a Sunday night game at Soldier Field. Their only loss had been to the Packers in Green Bay. That part certainly sounded familiar.

This is what I wrote:

This week, it’s 7-1 Houston at home. The following game is at San Francisco. And then we’ll know. Or at least we’ll have a better idea of how good the Bears really are.

The Texans won 13-6 and knocked Cutler out of the game with a concussion. He sat out the next game, which turned out to be another loss. The Bears ended up 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs. Coach Lovie Smith got fired after the season.

Moral: Don’t type “bearsbiggame’’ into your computer.

The other moral: That was then, this is now.

Sunday night is the biggest Bears game in forever. If not longer.