A week after being admittedly wide-eyed and in some cases overwhelmed by the playoff atmosphere in their loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field, the Bears showed Sunday that they had learned something about winning big games with huge stakes.
"The more you're in big games, the more you learn, the more you go out there relaxed and just play your game," said center Olin Kreutz, part of the offensive line that mauled the Bucs' defense for 207 rushing yards.
"We knew we were one win away from the playoffs, and that was our whole goal. We're there now, and we need to keep winning games and hopefully get home-field advantage."
With the Packers losing to the Tennessee Titans, the Bears also moved back atop the NFC Central Division and into position for a first-round bye in the postseason, which the two division winners with the best records receive.
But after some sideline celebrations late in the game, the locker room was largely businesslike, suggesting a sense of perspective.
The Bears had won their 10th game, most since an 11-5 finish in 1991, but they hadn't really won anything at all yet. And they understood that.
"We're overjoyed, but our expectations of getting to the playoffs were there," said defensive end Bryan Robinson. "Anything short of getting to the playoffs for us would have been a terrible season."
Sunday's goals were clear: "Definitely clinch the playoffs, definitely win at home and definitely win in the (NFC) conference," said cornerback R.W. McQuarters, who collected his third interception of the season. "We're 10-3, we've got a playoff berth, but we've got three games left. We showed a lot of composure today and played a complete game, and that's what good teams do."
The Bears accomplished their goals by rediscovering the firepower, offensive and defensive, that they unleashed the last time they faced the Bucs. The offense amassed its third-highest yardage total (379) of the season and scored as many touchdowns (three) as it had in the previous three games combined.
Not to be outdone, the defense collected two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, yielded its lowest yardage total of the season (238) and held its fourth opponent this season without a touchdown.
The Bears relied on three Jim Miller-to-Marty Booker passes in their win at Tampa on Nov. 18.
On Sunday, after a Paul Edinger field goal put the Bears up 3-0 in the first quarter, Miller followed a 62-yard second-quarter completion to rookie David Terrell with a touch pass in the corner of the end zone to Booker. The play was initially ruled incomplete, but the call was reversed after a challenge by the Bears. An Edinger field goal from 46 yards at the end of the second quarter sent the Bears in at halftime with a 13-3 lead.
The lead reached 20-3 on the Bears' first possession of the second half when Miller threw to tight end Fred Baxter, who outfought two Bucs defensive backs for an 18-yard touchdown catch.
The Bears' offensive line wore down and blew open holes in the Tampa Bay defense for rookie running back Anthony Thomas to net 173 yards, 146 of them in the second half.
"They played like a playoff football team and a team that deserves to be in the playoffs," said Tampa Bay safety John Lynch. "They got the A-Train (Thomas) going in the second half, and that was it. The second half, they just ran it down our throats."
Fittingly, Thomas scored the game's final points when he circled right end from 5 yards out early in the fourth quarter on a play that made a statement of sorts. Edinger had converted a 29-yard field goal on the previous play, but the Bears opted to accept a Tampa Bay penalty, take the points off the board and go for a decisive touchdown from first-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 5.
Miller completed 14-of-29 passes for 190 yards and held up under heavy pressure that sacked him three times and intercepted him once.
"We've been bad for so long, and this was probably the biggest game I've played in," said Miller, whose record as a Bears starter improved to 11-5. "So I feel pretty good about it."
The Bears' defense held Tampa Bay to 88 total yards in the second half and to a paltry 24 minutes of possession. In the process they validated a feeling they have had since spring.
"With the guys we have on this team, yes, I thought this was a playoff team," said defensive tackle Ted Washington.
"You could see how they practiced and how determined they were during the mini-camps and training camp.
"I sensed it was a playoff-caliber team."