ARLINGTON, Texas – Yes, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs sprinted for game-changing touchdowns Monday as part of a Bears defense that looks stronger every week.
Yes, Devin Hester returned to the end zone with his first big-play score of the season. And, yes, Jay Cutler returned to favorite target Brandon Marshall for a pile-on touchdown.
But most importantly, the Bears returned home today with something bigger: Momentum.
The Bears (3-1) maintained a share of the NFC North lead with a decisive 34-18 win against the Dallas Cowboys. They feasted on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo for five interceptions en route to a win that was at least as lopsided as the final score indicated.
“It was a good day at the office,” Bears defensive end Julius Peppers said with a smile.
Playing on the national stage for the second time in four weeks, some observers feared that the Bears would stagger. Instead, the Bears regained their swagger as part of a continued effort to establish an identity as a team capable of making big plays on both sides of the ball.
An after-dark start led to an especially festive crowd of 90,080 on a gorgeous night in North Texas, where officials opened the roof of Cowboys Stadium about an hour before kickoff. Thousands of Bears fans colored the cavernous building with blue and orange jerseys, and several pro-Bears chants emerged from the upper deck before Cowboys fans responded.
By the fourth quarter, the Cowboys’ cheerleaders danced in front of blocks of empty seats. Ex-Bears quarterback Kyle Orton took over for Romo with the game well out of reach.
Hours earlier, the Bears had entered the game as 3-point underdogs against the Cowboys, who boasted the NFL’s top-ranked defense and an offense filled with talented skill players.
Peppers tried to downplay the win but eventually admitted to its meaning.
“We’ve got to forget about this and get back to work,” Peppers said. “We’ve got another game next week.
“It’s good for everybody to see, I guess. Maybe not. We wanted to stay under the radar as much as possible, but when you do something like this on national TV, it kind of puts the spotlight on you.”
Now, it will be the Bears’ turn to play favorites.
The Bears’ next four-pack of games will come against teams that have struggled badly to start the season. They will visit the Jacksonville Jaguars, host the Detroit Lions and host the Carolina Panthers before returning to the road to play the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 4.
After a quarter of the season, each of those teams has managed only one win apiece.
The soft spot in the schedule presents an opportunity for the Bears to establish themselves as a top-tier team in the NFC heading into the season’s second half. Their two most difficult games of the upcoming stretch (Detroit and Carolina) come at Soldier Field, where the Bears have gone 42-24 since Lovie Smith replaced Dick Jauron as head coach in 2004.
Big plays, like big wins, often prove to be contagious in the NFL. Cutler (18 of 24, 275 yards, 2 TD) posted a terrific 140.1 passer rating and was sacked only twice, and the Bears won the time-of-possession battle to help quell the Cowboys’ home-field advantage.
“When you make big plays like that, it’s a lot of fun,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “Our offense kept us on the sidelines most of the game. … We were fresh.”
Then again, injuries or turnovers or distractions could lead the Bears astray.
Cutler proved to be cantankerous yet again Monday, but a pair of defensive touchdowns shifted the spotlight away from his sideline demeanor. Cameras caught Cutler standing up and walking away from offensive coordinator Mike Tice in the first half, even though Tice clearly had grabbed a seat next to Cutler in order to start a conversation.
Cutler’s antics might be part of the conversation regarding the Bears this week.
But the bigger topic is this: The Bears are 3-1 as they enter the easiest part of their schedule.
The spotlight is shining bright.
• Tom Musick covers Chicago professional sports for Shaw Media. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.