The defense was already arguably the best in the league led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher. Special teams was also a team strength, and the addition of rookie return man Devin Hester added a degree of explosiveness to go along with fantastic coverage units. The offense, on the other hand, was ranked just 29th a year ago and looked to be the weak line on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
If the Bears could simply become a middle-of-the-road offensive unit, they could become serious contenders.
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner finally had some talent to work with on his side of the ball, as quarterback Rex Grossman was healthy enough to start every game for the first time in his career. In the running game, veteran Thomas Jones keeps getting better with age, and youngster Cedric Benson overcame some early-season struggles and started to display his first-round talent. The receiving corps turned out to be better than advertised with speedy Bernard Berrian providing a complement to dependable Muhsin Muhammad, and even tight end Desmond Clark put together the best statistical season of his eight-year career.
The Monsters of the Midway rank 15th in the NFL in total offense this season - right in the middle of the pack as needed - and managed to score 427 points, second-most in franchise history.
The defense and special teams kept their promise, and consequently, the Bears will now face Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI.
The resurgence on offense has been led by a punishing rushing attack. Jones cracked the four-figure mark for the second consecutive season with 1,210 yards, and Benson racked up 647 yards himself in spot duty. In the NFC championship game last Sunday, Chicago set a playoff franchise record with 196 yards on the ground in a 39-14 beatdown of New Orleans.
After some early chemistry issues, Turner knows that his tailback tandem has led the way down the stretch.
"So far, it's been working great," Turner said on Thursday in the auditorium at Halas Hall. "Both guys have bought into it. They're both very good players. We want to utilize both their strengths."
Jones and Benson combined for 43 carries against New Orleans, and Turner sees no reason to change what they've been doing as of late.
"We'll continue to play both of them at different times," he said. "And if one of them gets hot running really well or whatever, then we'll stick with him. But right now, they're both playing well. I think it helps because it keeps them both fresh. You get in the second half, both of them have had a chance to get some rest, get a break, and yet get a feel for the game which is obviously very important."
Indianapolis is the champion of the AFC despite finishing the regular season as the worst rushing defense in the NFL. They surrendered an astronimical 173 yards per game on the ground, but they have somehow plugged their holes in the postseason. The have allowed only 220 total rushing yards in three playoff games - just 73.3 per contest on average - and completely shut down the likes of Larry Johnson of Kansas City and Laurence Maroney of New England.
When asked what suddenly has been the difference, Turner didn't hesitate with his answer.
No. 21 for the Colts is safety Bob Sanders, a quality run-stuffer who missed 12 games in the regular season due to injury but has provided a spark upon his return.
"That's oversimplifying it and that's not giving enough credit to the rest of the guys," Turner clarified, "but I think that's the difference. Sanders came in and gave them some energy, gave them some confidence. He flies around. He plays so hard. He plays so fast. He's such a good player, I think everybody else picked up on that, and they're all playing better. They're all playing really well right now."
Sanders has only 19 tackles in those three postseason tilts, but according to Turner, his presence alone has made Indy a better defense.
"So much of sports and athletics is confidence," he said. "They put together a couple good games, and all of a sudden they start believing and they start making the plays. And they're playing really, really well right now."
The Chicago running game is also playing really, really well right now, so this could be the key matchup to determining who hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 4 in Miami.