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For the shaken and reeling Bears, Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Champaign looms as nothing short of a shot at redemption.
Not necessarily redemption for the season; that will take more than one game since no Bears team has ever lost four straight games and finished at even .500 for that season, and this Bears team has dropped its last five.
But the Bears have a desperately needed chance to get back on the horse that threw them. It was the Eagles who knocked the Bears out of last season's playoffs with a blow that the Bears arguably have never completely shaken off. In their 33-19 win at Soldier Field, the Eagles separated quarterback Jim Miller's shoulder and the Bears from any illusion that they had arrived at the highest levels of the NFL, despite their 13-3 record.
"We got a taste of the playoffs and we found out that what we were last year was not good enough," said tackle James "Big Cat" Williams. "We have to be better than that."
But while the Eagles (5-2) have continued on the upward path they started under quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Bears have gone backward, and not just because of injuries.
The Eagles were more than casually confident they could handle the Bears last January, just as the playoff-bound Eagles this year doubtless feel about the battered team they will face Sunday.
"We just thought we could wear them out," said safety Damon Moore, who was then an Eagle and intercepted the Jim Miller pass in the end zone after which Hugh Douglas drove Miller into the ground, injuring his shoulder. "We had been through [the playoff experience] the year before and gotten it handed to us by the Giants. We'd been in that type of game and atmosphere before and were on a little bit of a roll ourselves. They'd had a week off and we thought we might be able to get them in a slow start. Mostly we thought they were too young. They were 13-3, had beaten some very good teams and were deserving of the bye, but we thought they were still a year away."
Maybe more, after the events of this season. The Philadelphia game provided a template for the disaster that the 2002 season has become, making Sunday's game the logical spot for the Bears to begin a rebuilding process, if they in fact are still able to this season.
Running back Anthony Thomas came into that playoff game averaging 123 yards over his previous four games. He managed a paltry 36 on 15 carries, and this year is averaging barely half of his pre-Eagles production. Marty Booker had 100 catches last season before the Philadelphia game, then was rocked by the Eagles, finishing with just two catches. The Bears did not have answers for the Eagles' game plan.
"All week we worked on trying to take [the run game] away from them with things like an extra guy in the box," said linebacker Mike Caldwell, an Eagles starter last season. "We knew our defensive backs were good and we could leave them alone on the Bears' receivers and once Jim [Miller] went out, we added a couple more guys in the box. We knew they were going to try running the ball down our throats."
The Bears trailed just 23-17 early in the fourth quarter of the playoff game when Autry Denson fumbled a kickoff and broke the Bears' momentum.
"I think [it was a slap in the face] because we had high hopes and were just a couple steps away from the greatest thing we play the game for," Bears tight end Fred Baxter said. "I think the guys not having the experience and knowing what type of tempo to expect in this type of game, that was the difference."