Something changed in our attitude toward the Bears over the last few weeks that made it impossible to say “Oh well, it certainly was a good game” after their 33-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Not that a few of us didn’t try the sentiment on for size. But it never did sound convincing–not when we spoke it, not when we heard it. If we hadn’t known before that the Bears once again had our allegiance, we knew it then.

A year ago we always had our doubts, even when the Bears were 7-5. Not this year. Like some spore long buried in the ground, our devotion to the Bears suddenly came to life. People once again made plans to watch the game together. Conversations on Monday turned not to Pulp Fiction or raking leaves but to the Bears. It was the victory over the Detroit Lions that convinced us the Bears were worthy of devotion, but it was the nervy last-minute win over the Arizona Cardinals that hooked us. After that we could no longer affect a haughty disinterest.

The win over the Lions was a game for the mind: it was football played so precisely it had the enchanting tone of a passage from Mozart. The win over the Cardinals was more emotionally involving: it was a street-corner blues singer moaning about how he was going to continue on. And of course the football gods conspired to place on the opposite sideline Buddy Ryan, a figure sure to raise the emotions of every Chicago football fan who remembers the last great Bears team.

The game against the Lions showed the Bears could put it all together; the game against the Cards showed the Bears struggling to keep it together, in the manner of someone carrying too many grocery sacks up the stairs. From the opening kickoff, the Bears seemed more prepared than the Cardinals to play. Ryan later cited poor Arizona tackling as proof they weren’t up for the game. A better indication was a strong Chicago drive into field-goal range on the Bears’ opening possession. Yet the drive ended with a halting reminder of quarterback Steve Walsh’s shortcomings–pun purely intended.

Walsh is not a big or physically formidable player; he gets by on guile rather than size or strength. The Cards, however, were the first team to put two and two together and make sure their defensive linemen got their hands in the air. They tipped several passes, and the first wound up in the hands of the Cardinals, ending the Bears’ drive. The Bears defense forced the Cardinals to punt, and then Walsh displayed one of his great strengths, his infectious resilience (take notes, Jim Harbaugh and Mike Tomczak), leading the Bears right back for a touchdown. He finished with a pass that was tipped by an Arizona linebacker and then caught by tight end Ryan Wetnight while lying on his back in the end zone. The Cards responded with a solid drive for a field goal, but from there the Bears played cautiously, bleeding the Cards for a field goal of their own to take a 10-3 halftime lead.

The Bears came out in the second half and drove for a field goal. The Cards responded in kind, but then the Bears added yet another three points. The key play on this drive was Walsh not only reading a blitz but seeing where it would be coming from: the safety covering Jeff Graham was going to charge in from the side. Walsh audibled and hit the uncovered Graham on a simple slant-in, and Graham motored 50 yards to put the Bears in field-goal position. They led 16-6 going into the fourth quarter.

It was then Walsh let the Cardinals back into the game. He was trying to dump a dinky little pass into the flat, but he didn’t put enough arc on it. Arizona lineman Keith McCants tipped it into the air, caught it, and began rumbling toward the end zone. McCants was one of the top picks in the college draft for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few years ago. He had thighs that made people think one word: steroids. But he had been a bust with the Bucs, and in the meantime he had produced a body that made people think another word: cheeseburgers. Still, he had enough vim and vigor to send Walsh sprawling–and enough self-esteem to make a ridiculous attempt at dunking the ball over the crossbar after he scored. The Cards might have been penalized style points, but it was 16-13 on the scoreboard.

“Here’s where a playoff defense gets it done,” said Hub Arkush on the radio. But the Bears allowed the Cards to drive for the tying field goal. Good thing we had the radio on, though, as the Fox television network missed the ensuing kickoff, which was booted on a line right to the Bears’ Bob Christian. He dropped it and the Cards recovered. But now the Bears defense did get it done, with the help of an Arizona holding call, and the game went into overtime.

The defense stopped the Cards on the first possession, then Walsh once again saw the Cardinals in a blitz. This was a more traditional blitz of linebackers coming up the middle, but Walsh knew it meant reduced coverage in the secondary. He dropped back, faked down the far sideline to pull the safety over, then threw to Graham on a post pattern down the middle. Graham caught the ball in field-goal range, and a few plays later Kevin Butler won the game with a 27-yard kick.

With the Vikings losing the same day to the lowly Buccaneers, the Bears were in first place at 8-4. Yet they had to travel to Minnesota a week ago Thursday to play the Vikes for the lead in the National Football Conference Central Division. And, as anyone might have expected, the Vikings had been looking ahead to the Bears when they lost to the Bucs. Not only were the Bears missing tackles against Minnesota, thus scoring poorly on Buddy Ryan’s preparedness scale, the Vikes had the holes in the Bears’ zone defense all but diagrammed on the Metrodome’s artificial turf.

Still, it was Walsh who called the early shots for both teams. Concerned about the tipped passes the week before, he overthrew a receiver on the Bears’ first possession, and the pass was picked off by Dewayne Washington, who scampered for a touchdown. Yet, just as he had rallied himself from an early mistake against Arizona, Walsh drove the Bears for the tying touchdown, finishing with a pass to Robert Green, the short, plump, all-but-forgotten running back who suddenly looked like Barry Sanders scooting around on the turf. The Vikings drove for a legitimate field goal in the second quarter, with quarterback Warren Moon finding those holes in the Chicago zone, but the Bears drove right back–until Walsh, clearly suffering from a sustained case of nerves for the first time this season, muffed a snap in field-goal range. Minnesota turned it the other way for a field goal to produce a six-point swing and a 13-7 lead at the half.

Graham ignited the Bears with a 60-yard touchdown punt return early in the third quarter. The two teams then traded field goals, but after the Bears’ score the Vikes fumbled the kickoff, and Walsh, who had composed himself, immediately converted it into a touchdown with a beautiful toss to Greg McMurtry. The Bears had seized the game, up 24-16 going into the final quarter.

The Vikings drove, but settled for a field goal. Once again Arkush said here is where a playoff team puts the game away, this time by controlling the ball on offense. Yet Lewis Tillman fumbled on the Bears 15-yard line, and Moon converted the break into a touchdown. He also added a two-point conversion, putting the Vikes up 27-24. But Walsh once again shifted gears and drove the Bears for the tying field goal before the end of regulation.

The Bears won the toss to open overtime and drove back into field-goal position. The moment was reminiscent of the victory over the Cardinals. This time, however, Butler hooked his kick from 41 yards out. Moments later, Moon caught the Bears in a coverage that had a linebacker on wide receiver Cris Carter. He caught the ball on a simple crossing pattern near the sideline, tiptoed on the edge of the paint, and took off straight downfield for the shocking, game-winning touchdown.

It was a great game, rich in drama, full of twisting, turning themes that made heroes of goats and vice versa, but it produced none of the impartial elation a great game–say, the Monday night shoot-out between Joe Montana and John Elway earlier this season–usually produces. It was then we knew we were hooked, committed the way a primitive is committed to reading his future in goat entrails. And when we noticed, belatedly, that our friend Mike Mulligan at the Sun-Times had picked the Bears last Thursday, after picking against them going back to the game at Tampa Bay a month ago, we knew what had happened.

Pick the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Michael. We’ll all rest easier.