The opening game of the baseball season is a cause for celebration. It’s a tribal ritual signaling the arrival of spring; the outcome of the game is almost inconsequential, as there are 161 more to follow. The opening game of the NFL season, however, is not just the beginning of the football year and the start of fall; it also dictates in large measure how successful a team will be. With only 16 games in the regular season, a team that starts 0-2 and especially 0-3 can all but write itself off, and that possibility leads directly from an opening loss. Conversely, football is such a game of team play and confidence that a big early win can propel a team from mediocrity to the ranks of contenders. Something like that happened last year to the Bears, who lost their opener but upset the Minnesota Vikings in game two and went on to a 13-3 record based on a series of almost unbelievable comeback victories.

I had a bad feeling about the Bears’ opener last Sunday. The ’01 Bears were just about the least intimidating 13-3 team in NFL history. They generally enjoyed good health–even an injury to Marcus Robinson only cleared the way for Marty Booker to establish himself as a Pro Bowl-level receiver with a team-record 100 catches–and they caught every break, as in the tipped ball Mike Brown caught and returned for a touchdown in overtime to beat the San Francisco 49ers. They set an NFL record with an 8-0 mark in games decided by seven points or less. Yet as every statistician knows, the law of averages made it just as likely that the Bears’ luck would swing to the other side this season. What’s more, aside from their younger players growing a year older and more experienced, the team appeared little improved. The Bears lost cornerback Walt Harris, safety Tony Parrish, and left tackle Blake Brockermeyer to free agency, and their replacements–Jerry Azumah, Mike Green, and Bernard Robertson, who was starting ahead of the top draft pick, massive Marc Columbo–were unproven. Finally, because Soldier Field was being rebuilt they’d have to play even their home games on the road–at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

So the potential for the Bears to return to mediocrity appeared great, and every small setback Sunday suggested the artificial turf of Illinois’ Zuppke Field opening under the Bears’ feet to reveal an abyss. This produced a game full of emotional highs and lows for Chicago fans–who’d all but anointed the team to be the year’s savior after the Cubs and White Sox seasons went down the tubes. Yet the underdog Vikings started by pushing the Bears’ vaunted defense–the team’s undeniable strength–up and down the field. Rookie Michael Bennett enjoyed success running wide off tackle and quarterback Daunte Culpepper marched Minnesota to an opening field goal. The Bears, as ever playing a cautious game under prudent head coach Dick Jauron, nudged the ball to midfield before a drive stalled, then punted it away. Brad Maynard pinned the Vikings at their two-yard line with one of his trademark dartboard kicks, the defense held–with the help of a Minnesota illegal-procedure penalty that negated a long pass to Randy Moss–and the Bears turned their resulting fine field position into a touchdown. Unassuming quarterback Jim Miller stepped up in the pocket and hit Booker with a 29-yard pass on a post pattern–all according to plan.

But the lead was short-lived. Linebacker Warrick Holdman, trying to preserve his reputation as defensive sidekick to the star, Scottie Pippen to Brian Urlacher’s Michael Jordan, suffered through an awful first half. He let tight end Byron Chamberlain get by him for a bomb that took the Vikings to Chicago’s one-yard line. Then he played the goat again, falling down trying to catch Culpepper on a quarterback draw that produced a touchdown and a 10-7 Minnesota lead. The Bears’ offensive line couldn’t do anything with the Vikings’ defense, with Anthony Thomas, last year’s star rookie, actually held to negative yardage for the first half. Forced back to the air, Miller fortunately hit Booker on another long post pattern at midfield, and a personal foul for a helmet tackle tacked on another 15 yards and put the Bears in field-goal range. Again the offense got cautious, but kicker Paul Edinger saved the Bears’ butts by making a 49-yard field goal to tie it at 10.

On the ensuing kickoff Edinger hyperextended his right knee, tough luck symptomatic of the war of attrition being waged on the 100-degree turf under the late-summer sun. Brown, trying to play himself back into shape after missing the entire exhibition schedule with a broken wrist, went out with dehydration. Defensive end Phillip Daniels and cornerback R.W. McQuarters followed him to the sidelines with more serious knee injuries.

When the Bears’ mobile linebackers adjusted to the Vikings’ end runs with a high-pursuit defense, the Vikings turned it up inside the tackles for good gains, and Culpepper started mixing in passes to tight end Jim Kleinsasser. A holding penalty stalled the Vikings, but they got close enough for a field goal to put them back in front, 13-10.

The Bears cautiously marched back, but a wide-open Booker dropped a third-down pass that ended their next drive in Minnesota territory. The Bears punted, and again the defense held to give the offense good field position. But with the tentative Bears suddenly playing recklessly in the half’s last minute, Miller, lined up in the shotgun formation, muffed the snap and the Vikings recovered. On the very next play Culpepper hit Moss with a perfectly thrown pass on a post pattern–over Urlacher, who was providing double coverage with rookie safety Bobby Gray badly beaten–that put the Vikings up 20-10 and gave them 273 yards of offense, an entire game’s worth, in the first half. Miller took a knee to run out the clock, and fans who’d made the long trip downstate booed the Bears into the locker room.

There was little change of fortune to start the second half, with Miller fumbling again right away. At least this time the Bears recovered. He steadied himself with a nice long pass to Dez White, and it seemed to get the offensive line started. The line opened a big hole for Leon Johnson, then another to give Thomas his first decent run of the game. But the drive stalled, and when Miller got sacked it looked like Minnesota had pushed the Bears out of field-goal range. Again Edinger bailed out Chicago with a 49-yard kick, even with his gimpy knee. The defense remained powerless to stop the Vikings, but Holdman got hit with an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for taunting and seemed to decide this was all he could stand. Fired up, he shot through the line to bury Bennett in the backfield on second and short yardage, and when on the next play Culpepper tried to pass for the touchdown to wide receiver Derrick Alexander, second-year defensive back Reggie Austin made a leaping interception at the goal line.

The Bears’ offensive line was beginning to lean on the Vikings, and Minnesota’s middle linebacker Greg Biekert became the latest to suffer a knee injury. The Bears plodded down the field for another field goal–only to watch Edinger go astray from the comparatively short distance of 42 yards. The Vikes immediately drove for a field goal of their own, putting them up by ten again and making it a two-possession game for the Bears with just over nine minutes to play. A season of mediocrity beckoned.

Yet just like last year, something happened when the Bears found their backs to the wall. Again Booker got loose on the tough-to-defend post pattern, and Miller hit him in stride to carry the Bears to the Minnesota 24. Thomas hit the line in a crowd, disappeared, then emerged on the other side like a commuter taking a shortcut through Marshall Field’s and ran to the eight. Thomas almost scored on the next play, and then his one-yard burst made the score 23-20 with over six minutes left. The Bears wouldn’t even have to risk an onside kick.

The defense, the team’s supposed source of pride, again discouraged, giving up a couple of grinding first downs that got the Vikings to midfield and ran down the clock. A timely sack allowed the Bears the luxury of turning down a ten-yard holding penalty, and facing third and long, Culpepper heaved the ball downfield and into the hands of Brown, who returned it to midfield just ahead of the two-minute warning.

Miller hit Thomas with a screen pass that came up just short of a first down, then, with the clock ticking, took a long shot at Booker–this time on an out pattern instead of the post. The ball glided off Booker’s fingertips for an incomplete pass. The Bears showed their mettle on the next play, with Johnson bulling his way to the 30. Booker made a catch just shy of another first down at the 20, and Thomas converted with a third-down run. Miller, playing with calm assurance, found an unexpected target in tight end John Davis at the eight. Then last year’s top draft pick, Michigan alumnus David Terrell, ran into the end zone, found an open spot in the Vikings’ zone defense, and simply waited for Miller to find him with a high pass he plucked out of the sky–unlike a few he let slip through his hands last season. Terrell fell to the turf, got up, jumped a crowd-control fence, and ran to the stands for the wildest reception a Michigan man has probably ever received at Memorial Stadium. Edinger kicked the extra point to make it 27-23, and linebacker Rosevelt Colvin sealed the win by stripping Culpepper on the Vikes’ final possession, Bryan Knight falling on the fumble.

So start stocking up for a major New Year’s party, or make travel plans for the Super Bowl. The Bears have opened the season with all the cool assurance of criminals on a string of robberies–outlaws against the law of averages.