- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Clearly, there is no longer room on Lovie Smith's team for the benefit of the doubt or patience or nonsense. Chalk it up to desperation or team depth or to the new tough-Lovie approach that was there on the sideline Monday night for the Bears' biggest win in at least a year. There were two higher-profile players on the team, wearing sweats. And soon two other starters joined them on the bench.
"We had a decision to make," the Chicago Bears coach said.
And so they did, by making healthy scratches out of starting defensive tackle Tommie Harris and wide receiver Devin Aromashodu; by removing under-performing cornerback Zack Bowman for Tim Jennings; by giving some of offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer's snaps to J'Marcus Webb and by playing Henry Melton and Marcus Harrison.
While Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Devin Hester and, for much of the night, Jay Cutler simply did, in the words of Smith, "what they are paid to do" in upending the rival Green Packers 20-17, that has not always been a given.
In the end, it didn't matter if the Packers' players lacked discipline, if the Packers' coaching staff lacked foresight or if the entire Packers team was overrated. The Bears' players who were supposed to perform, did. The players who were not prepared to play, did not.
And a Bears team very few of us expected to jump out to a quick start against a seemingly tough schedule, finds itself the only undefeated team in the NFC at 3-0.
Whether or not this victory sent the proverbial message to the rest of the league and to doubters everywhere, Urlacher said he simply does not care.
"People can think what they want to," said Urlacher, who along with Briggs, leads the Bears in tackles with nine and forced a game-altering fumble with the game tied and 2:18 remaining in regulation. "We'll just keep going out there and playing hard every week.
"We like being the underdog. Obviously, we've done well at it. I hope people keep picking against us. It works out good for us when they do. We're going to play that role the whole year."
The Bears did what they had to do against a surprisingly sloppy Packers team that committed 18 penalties for 152 yards and continually got in its own way despite a typically highly efficient performance by Aaron Rodgers, who marched up and down the field, completing 34 of 45 passes for 316 yards until he ran out of time.
Why Packers coach Mike McCarthy would not give his team ample time to tie or win by allowing the Bears to score in the final minute, when it was clear the Packers were not going to run down the clock, is a mystery all the more curious after he offered his reasoning afterward.
"I did not consider letting them score at the end," McCarthy said of the Bears. "I felt they [would miss] a field goal in the end."
Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the third most accurate field goal kicker in league history, did, in fact, miss one on the first series of the game. But it was from 49 yards out, a rare miss at that, and his eventual game-winner was an absolute gimmee from 19.
Were the Bears lucky that an interception by Cutler on the Bears' second-to-last, game-tying series was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty by Frank Zombo? Were they fortunate that the Packers' tight end extraordinaire, Jermichael Finley, was out of the game for half the fourth quarter with muscle cramps?
Could it have cost them a victory when Cutler's less-than-perfect throw went off the hands of Desmond Clark in the end zone on another fourth-and-1 from the Packers' 1-yard line in the third quarter?
But it was not luck that Peppers notched his 10th career blocked kick, second best in the NFL, when he got his hands on Mason Crosby's 37-yard field goal attempt on the previous possession. Nor was it a fluke when Hester, on the Bears' next series, returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown to give the Bears their first lead at 14-10, despite the fact that it was Hester's first since December of 2007.
"If you talk to most of our opponents, they'll still tell you they are scared when Devin goes back there," Smith said of Hester's 12th career kick return for a score.
On too many days like this one in recent years, the Packers would have still come back for the victory. But on too many days, Smith did what an understanding man does and allowed a Harris or an Aromashodu to play despite evidence in games and practice that there were players who could do better.
This time, those two did not dress. Jennings replaced Bowman and deftly recovered Urlacher's forced fumble. And Smith's players know now that playing time will be hard-earned.
"If you prove you can play and they see you out there with your limited reps trying to get somewhere and making plays, your reps are going to increase, they see that and they're going to play you," Melton said.
Jennings said he was as surprised as anyone when he got the tap on the shoulder from Smith.
"He just told me to be ready and the next play he threw me in there," Jennings said. "You never know when your number is going to be called. I think it's a great football team and we do have depth behind guys. ... When we go against the offense every day, we try to make them better but at the same time we're making ourselves better."
How much better? It's still early, said Smith.
"I just know they're laying it on the line," he said.
And in the process, gaining respect along the way.
"It would be easy to say it was just another game, but this was huge," Bears tight end Greg Olsen said. "On 'Monday Night Football,' to beat your division rival and now we're atop the NFC ... 3-0 is the best you can be after three games ."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Lovie Smith made a statement by sitting underperforming players.