Before it even began, last Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers was a dangerous game for the Bears, packed with risks and pitfalls. As it played out, aside from a cataclysmic injury to Brian Urlacher or Rex Grossman (which some uneasy fans might regard as a positive at this point), almost every calamity that could have befallen the Bears did. Yet Bears fans can stop pulling their hair out and tearing at their Grossman jerseys. The Bears will win their opening playoff game next week, no matter who they play. What happens after that will determine whether the undeniable heroics of the 2006 Bears are remembered as a legend in the making or merely cheap thrills.

Almost every detail surrounding Sunday’s game at Soldier Field conspired to add significance to it–much to the Bears’ dismay. The Bears entered 13-2, the best record in the National Football Conference, and on the surface had nothing to play for, having already clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs, while by the time of the opening kickoff the 7-8 Pack had already been eliminated from the postseason. But the rivalry between the two teams is so intense that the records couldn’t have been more inconsequential; it’s not uncommon for a bad team to take pride in dealing a punishing loss to their betters to salvage a lost season, and it doesn’t take a hypersensitive Bears fan to recall how the Pack’s Charles Martin all but singlehandedly ended the Bears’ mid-80s dynasty with his brutal hit on Jim McMahon in 1986. Bears head coach Lovie Smith said in his very first news conference that his top priority was to beat Green Bay. He found that sentiment thrown back in his face last week when he least wanted to hear it.

The rivalry prompted NBC to seize the game for its Sunday-night showcase on national TV, with Al Michaels and John Madden doing the commentary, the latter as ever gushing over Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, once again the subject of what has become annual speculation about whether this would be his final game before retirement. The Bears, in short, were facing an inspired opponent in a grudge match on New Year’s Eve, a high-profile, prime-time affair with the kind of pressure that already had gotten to Grossman earlier this season. His performances in nationally televised games have been a mixed bag, with a stellar outing against the Seattle Seahawks on a Sunday night in October followed by an atrocious evening on a Monday in Arizona against the Cardinals, a mediocre Sunday night in New England against the Patriots in November, and, most recently, a more respectable Monday game in Saint Louis against the Rams.

So it was doubly disconcerting when Grossman relapsed, throwing two interceptions returned for touchdowns and simply leaving the ball on the turf in a muffed snap from center Olin Kreutz on a potential scoring drive. The Bears were down 23-0 at the half and went on to lose 26-7 as Favre enjoyed a good day to retire on–or lure him back. For Grossman the only consolation was that backup quarterback Brian Griese offered little improvement over his performance, throwing a couple of bad interceptions sandwiched around a touchdown bomb to Mark Bradley. The only other positive was that the Bears weren’t badly injured–except for their team ego, which took a thrashing.

Still, for all the importance placed on the game, it was in fact meaningless. In effect the Bears played with one hand tied behind their backs, showing no inventiveness in their offensive game plan and withholding their more intricate blitz packages and coverages on defense. This was because–and it’s a sin of omission that no one pointed this out, from Madden to the so-called experts at the dailies–the Bears were clearly playing possum, hiding their best offensive and defensive schemes from their potential playoff opponents. It’s because the Bears’ offensive plays were predictable that the Packers had such success disrupting them and picking off passes; meanwhile on defense the Bears sat back in a zone and let Favre pick them apart. Their one surprise–a fake punt–was inserted precisely to give those upcoming opponents something to study apart from the usual, forcing them to spend precious time preparing for a Bears fake where it’s usually more than enough to try to find ways to contain Devin Hester on punt and kickoff returns.

So calm down, Bears fans, at least for the next week or so. I’m not saying relax or don’t worry: Grossman has shown too much potential to choke for anyone to get comfortable. Yet he’s a streaky guy, as well as being far and away the Bears’ best and most talented quarterback, and if offensive coordinator Ron Turner can arrive at a few surefire plays to get him off to a good start, he should be all right. So should the defense, with the teeth of its blitz packages returned. The Bears should win their first playoff game in a dozen years, most likely in a rematch with the Seahawks, if not over the Dallas Cowboys, who are underdogs in Seattle this weekend. No way they play the New York Giants, who figure to get pasted by the Philadelphia Eagles–the Bears’ most fearsome potential opponent–this weekend. If the Eagles beat the Giants and then the Saints in New Orleans next weekend, as they should, they would be formidable coming to Soldier Field. On the other hand, if the Saints somehow get here, the Bears would be more experienced and would be favored to reach the Super Bowl, where they’d face the more dominating American Football Conference representative.

For now, put Grossman’s penchant for miscues and the embarrassment against the Packers aside (as distasteful as that may be) and recall his early season pyrotechnics, Hester’s six return touchdowns–including his crafty pause in faking to down a missed field goal that led to a record-tying 108-yard dash–and the way Urlacher completely took over the game in Arizona and willed the Bears to win in a way not seen in this town since, dare I say, Michael Jordan. The Bears are already a better team than they were a year ago, but they need to win next week to improve on last season’s one-and-done playoff performance. After that Bears fans can start to fret.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.