Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris stood by his Soldier Field locker for the final time in 2007. He was frustrated over how events unfolded this season, yet full of optimism based on the last two games.
"The main thing that I learned is that we're a team that has fun," Harris said. "We play better when we have fun."
Such moments were rare this season, so Sunday's 33-25 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the finale was one to relish. Sure, the Bears finished with a dismal 7-9 record, but beating the Saints gave them consecutive wins for the first time this season.
"I don't know how to feel," Harris said. "It's sad to see … if we would have beaten Minnesota, came on here and then walked into the playoffs like this, we could have been in total control.
"Unfortunately, our season's over."
At least on the field it is. Change is on the horizon, and the players know it. Coach Lovie Smith doesn't anticipate a mass exodus, but new faces are sure to pop up at Halas Hall in 2008 as familiar ones make their way out of town.
"I just hope I'm here," Harris said. "I think they'll make good moves. Whatever they do, I don't have any say. I believe Lovie and Jerry Angelo will make great moves."
No matter what personnel decisions are forthcoming, the Bears needed to make a positive step toward next season before this one ended. Beating the Packers and Saints back-to-back was a start.
The Bears doused the Saints' slim playoff chances with contributions from all phases. An often-stale offense showed more variety than it had all season as offensive coordinator Ron Turner emptied the playbook. Linebacker Brian Urlacher continued his Pro Bowl-caliber play even though he won't be on the plane to Hawaii. And Devin Hester, the electric one, closed the home stadium down for the season by taking two to the house—one on a 55-yard reception from Kyle Orton, the other on a 64-yard punt return.
The punt return gave Hester an NFL-record six kick returns for touchdowns this season, surpassing the mark he set last season.
"All the things Devin achieves, I'm happy to be a part of that," said teammate Brendon Ayanbadejo, the special teams captain. "And I get to put that on my résumé."
Orton improved his portfolio with another decent performance in his third straight start. He was shaky early while throwing passes not even Yao Ming could have reached. Then Orton settled down, beginning with a precise 19-yard TD strike to Mark Bradley in the first quarter. The play followed Robbie Gould's 39-yard field goal, which Urlacher set up with his team-leading fifth interception.
On the touchdown to Hester, Orton threw a perfect ball as the speedster got behind Jason Craft and the safety help that was late coming over.
Orton, throwing deep frequently, finished 12 of 27 for 190 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 77.7. He was reasonably happy with his performance, but not blown away by it, though it did produce a "W."
"We left a few yards on the field," Orton said. "I missed a couple of throws. We had some opportunities to make some bigger plays. But all in all, I thought we played well."
The Bears never relinquished the lead after going up 10-0, but relaxing was never an option. Saints quarterback Drew Brees kept it close with two first-half touchdown passes to star receiver Marques Colston, but Colston hurt his hand before halftime and didn't return, costing the Saints one of their most formidable weapons.
So Brees turned to rookie running back Pierre Thomas, an Illinois product from Thornton Fractional South. The undrafted free agent amassed 226 total yards and a touchdown in his first trip to Soldier Field, but for as much as he tried, Thomas couldn't do it all.
While the Bears' defense put constant pressure on Brees and routinely deflected his passes, Orton and the offense played anything but conservative football.
With 5 minutes 45 seconds left in the first half, running back Adrian Peterson took a pitch from Orton, started up field, then pulled back and lofted a pass to Bernard Berrian for a 9-yard touchdown.
Maybe Peterson should get a look at quarterback next season?
"Nah," he said. "Let the quarterbacks do what they do, man."
Peterson finished with 91 rushing yards on 21 carries, his second consecutive solid outing. Hester's punt return and a safety accounted for the Bears' scoring in the second half. It was all they needed, with the defense creating turnovers and keeping the Saints out of the end zone.
The Saints didn't help themselves by going for it on three fourth-down plays when they could have settled for field goals.
Charles Tillman had an interception, although he fumbled it back to the Saints. Harris sacked Brees and forced a fumble that Alex Brown recovered.
Teaming up with Brown on that play was part of the reason Harris offered such a positive outlook about the future, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
"I'm not a GM, but I play defensive line and our defensive line is complete," Harris said. "We get Dusty Dvoracek back and Anthony Adams. I felt the best I've felt all year this last game.
"We'll be ready to go."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times