After the NFC Championship Game, as I made my way to the Bears' locker room deep under Soldier Field, past rows of gleaming new red and black snowblowers, confetti cannons and beered-up Bears fans chanting "Super F-ing Bowl," I was sure this was going to be the year the streak ended.
In their game against the Saints, the Bears had reestablished themselves as a physically dominant team on both sides of the ball. They were headed to Miami. And for the herculean effort of winning the NFC, they had been rewarded by the NFL with free gray T-shirts and dorky hats. All was good. The streak would be broken.
Surely, I thought, this team was above the lamest, dumbest, most pathetic, predictable prattle in all of sports.
Then coach Lovie Smith took the podium and, after exclaiming that "It doesn't get any better than this," it took him all of 48 seconds to uncork the whine. His message was repeated, ad nauseam, over the next hour and a half, by Rex Grossman, Brian Urlacher, Thomas Jones, the ghost of George Halas, the parking attendant, the hot dog lady and just about everyone else inside the city limits.
And after a while, I just wanted to stick my head into one of those confetti cannons.
Of all the predictable, lame lead-ups to the Super Bowl -- the incessantly sappy, personal profiles of courage, the gluttonous food wagering by mayors in cities with starving homeless people, the "I hate this town" columns by the media -- this is the one I've grown to despise the most.
So in case you missed the 872 other references to it in the past week, here's your first official Super Bowl news flash:
Apparently, no one respects the Chicago Bears.
It all starts in the media, I think, where, during the preseason, the Bears were nearly the unanimous choice to win the NFC North. Many publications, including my very own ESPN The Magazine, also predicted the Bears would be at the Super Bowl in Miami. So they have a point, 'cause there's no respect there. None whatsoever.
Coach Smith, the 2005 NFL Coach of the Year and a man credited in every way possible with turning the franchise around? Nope. No one respects him.
Urlacher, the 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a six-time Pro Bowl player who has been one of the most universally praised and honored players since 2000 when he was named defensive rookie of the year? He's getting mad disrespected, yo.
How about the seven other Bears who were named to the Pro Bowl? No one respects them, either.
Or the 15 teams Chicago beat this year? Nope.
Or the oddsmakers in Vegas? Who, after a late-season slump, injuries on defense and a noodle-armed quarterback who appeared ready to go nuclear at any moment, still favored the Bears to beat the Saints at home in the NFC title game? Yeah, right there's some blatant disrespect. See, now I'm getting mad, too. This is out of control. Will someone please respect the Bears' author-i-ta!
Please, I'm begging you. Stop. It's unBearable. This motivational tactic is just so lame and whiny, it's beneath Chicago and any other team or coach that wants to be considered great. NORU (No One Respects Us) is the Kevin Garnett jab of Super Bowl motivation: You think you're being all poignant and primal, then you watch the replay and, instead, you actually look like a fifth-grader slap-fighting a classmate over a jump rope. I mean, have you ever seen a player lift the Lombardi and breathlessly exclaim: You respect us! You really, really respect us!
Yet after the game, inside the Bears' locker room, I heard NORU pulled out in almost every conversation. I heard it so many times -- my personal fave is Urlacher's sarcastic Hilton-esque refrain that the Bears are the worst 13-3 team eeh-vur! -- I started humming to myself the Aretha Franklin song, you know, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, let's find out how lame the Bears can be."
"We went into the game with the best record in the National Football League, but we didn't really get a lot of respect," said Smith.
"It felt really good to prove the people wrong who didn't believe in us," said Thomas Jones.
"It doesn't matter what anyone says, every game people find something wrong with our team, our defense, our quarterback," said Urlacher.
"I'm through with you people, that's it," was all Alex Brown would say when asked about the Bears' lack of respect.
"There's so much lack of respect for us out there now it's almost routine. You see it everywhere and every time you turn on the TV, open the paper or read something online -- no one respects us," said safety Chris Harris. "So we know we're going to be underdogs in the Super Bowl. There's no doubt."
And no disrespect. Trust me.
It's just a fact of life: Someone has to be the underdog and someone has to be the favorite, and, well, the AFC has been the better conference all season. Plus, I'm sorry, have the Bears forgotten how long it's been since they made a playoff run this deep? My little brother was in parachute pants, that's how long ago it was. And what, exactly, did people have to respect with the Bears before the NFC Championship Game? That 26-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale? The 49-yard field goal in overtime they needed to squeak past the Seahawks? The quarterback whose rating dipped blow 1.4 twice in the final month of the season?
I mean, what did they expect?
"We're grown men, professionals getting ready to play in the Super Bowl, and in my mind, if you can't get ready to play for this game without having to pull out the 'respect' thing, you don't really deserve or understand all this," said the Bears' 6-foot-7, 315-pound tackle Fred Miller. "I guess it's just an easy thing to talk about. But you shouldn't be out there playing because someone in the media disrespected you, you should be out there playing for yourself, your teammates, your family, your coaches and for your city. That's why you want to go out and win -- not for respect from the media. In this environment do you really need a chip on your shoulder? If you lose in the Super Bowl, you go home. What more motivation is there than that?"
Exactly, I told Miller. And if a team plays poorly for a stretch and people criticize or doubt it or choose to pick another team, is that lack of respect or just fair and routine analysis?
"I understand what you're saying," Miller replied. "But it was so lopsided coming into this game it was hard not to take as a lack of respect. It wasn't fair. It was like, 'These guys don't have a chance to win -- no chance at all.' To say that a team doesn't have a chance, at home, in the playoffs, as the No. 1 seed with the most wins in the game, then that can be a little disrespectful."
Perhaps, but why is the concept of respect so important in the NFL?
"It's not just the NFL, but life in general," Miller said. "Everyone wants to be respected for what they do. It's a touchy thing. You don't want praise for every little thing you do, but you do want credit for the job you do. I'm a man. I play in the NFL. I'm going to the Super Bowl. I'm just not gonna let people talk to me and disrespect what I do for a living. It's as simple as that. I'm not gonna let that happen. All we want ... is for people to at least say they respect us, that, 'Hey, you never know, the Bears are a capable team, they could get it done in the Super Bowl.' That's all we want."
Hey, I was just thinking, you never know, the Bears are a capable team that could get it done in the Super Bowl.
That wasn't so hard.
Now can we stop with all the NORU nonsense?
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.