LAKE FOREST - All along, the Chicago Bears claimed they would reach this point. They said they would make the playoffs, stuck together through a tough start and proved their preseason predictions were more than just hollow training camp chatter.
And here they are.
After a first-round playoff bye, after a season proving the doubters wrong, the Bears host the Carolina Panthers today, with the winner advancing to the NFC championship game.
It all seemed unlikely, especially after a loss to Cleveland that dropped Chicago to 1-3 and left linebacker Lance Briggs wondering: "Are we that bad?"
The answer was an emphatic no. The Bears won eight straight after that, 10 of their last 12, and captured the NFC North. Along the way, they dominated the Panthers 13-3 at Soldier Field, sacking Jake Delhomme eight times.
Now, they meet again.
The Bears are in the playoffs for the first time in four years and are looking for their first playoff victory since beating Minnesota in the first round following the 1994 season. After going 13-3 and earning a bye in 2001, they lost by 14 to Philadelphia.
The Panthers became the first road team since 1980 to score a playoff shutout when they beat the New York Giants 23-0 in the opening round last week. The defense forced five turnovers and the offense ran over a Giants team hurt by injuries to its linebacking corps.
DeShaun Foster rushed for 151 yards after going for 165 against Atlanta the previous week.
None of this seemed to awe Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who cut off a question about the Panthers' running game this week by saying, "We're not the Giants."
Nor are they the Falcons, for that matter.
The Bears owned the NFL's top-ranked defense for seven weeks before ending the regular season with a 34-10 loss at Minnesota that dropped that unit to second behind Tampa Bay. They allowed a league-low 12.6 points per game.
And the last time the Bears met Carolina, they branded themselves an NFC contender with a victory that was as lopsided as a 10-point win can be.
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Although Steve Smith finished with 169 yards receiving, Carolina's running game was nonexistent. The Panthers managed 55 yards rushing. But they have a different look now, more speed and finesse with Foster carrying the ball and Stephen Davis on injured reserve.
Foster, who started the last four regular-season games and the playoff opener, had three mediocre outings before breaking out against Atlanta.
"They run a lot of tosses with him to use his speed," Bears defensive end Alex Brown said. "That actually helps their different blocking schemes; it's not all power. They can run some finesse type plays. The guy runs hard, he breaks tackles. He did last game against the Giants."
The last time Delhomme faced the Bears he spent much of the game running away from pressure. When he wasn't on the ground, he was slinging sidearm passes and throwing off his back foot. Nathan Vasher's two first-quarter interceptions set up a touchdown and field goal, and the Bears never looked back.
The defense had its way, and the offensive line didn't budge against the Panthers.
"It happened. They did a great job that game," Delhomme said. "Certainly, we spotted them 10 points early on largely in part to a couple of important decisions by me. Certainly, we had to play catch-up from then on. And when you have to throw the football and the defensive line can just pin their ears back and go, it's not a fun day sometimes."
The Bears' defensive line had a good time, especially Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown. Ogunleye sacked Delhomme three times, and Brown contributed two sacks and forced two fumbles.
Most impressive, the Bears got those eight sacks without blitzing.
"The important thing on stopping Jake Delhomme is getting pressure to him," Briggs said. "Force him to throw the ball when he doesn't want to throw it. Messing up the timing routes. We have a pretty good idea who they want to get the ball to."
He said Delhomme had "happy feet."
But history says Delhomme's performance jumps in the postseason, where he is 4-1 with a 105.1 passer rating (compared to 84.5 in the regular season). And his Bears counterpart, Rex Grossman, will make his playoff debut.
First-time postseason quarterbacks were 0-4 last weekend, with the Panthers devouring Eli Manning.
Not that Grossman needed the reminder.
"The lack of experience is not what I would wish (for) going into this game - especially in the third year of my career," said Grossman, who missed significant chunks of the past two seasons with injuries. "I don't feel like a rookie going into it - somewhere in between there."