Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie said he felt “antsy” heading into his first NFL start.
One week later, in front of about 60,000 Bears fans, “excited” would be a better description.
“Being at home is always great, especially at Soldier Field,” said Hanie, who was promoted to a starting role after Jay Cutler broke his right thumb. “It’s such a unique environment. I feel like we’ll have a lot more comfort level. We’ll be a lot more relaxed coming out initially.”
That should be good news today as the Bears (7-4) host the Kansas City Chiefs (4-7).
Although the Bears’ defense and special teams played well last week, Hanie’s learning curve (three interceptions in the first half) was too much to overcome. The Bears lost, 25-20, to the Oakland Raiders, snapping a five-game winning streak that started in mid-October.
The Bears’ reaction to the loss was closer to a shrug than a shriek.
For one, the experience helped Hanie to adjust to the increased speed of an NFL game.
For another, the Bears remained on track to secure the top wild-card berth in the NFC.
And it doesn’t hurt that the Bears have proved to be great in December under Lovie Smith.
Smith preferred not to discuss his late-season success or his team’s long-term playoff outlook this week. For eight seasons as the Bears’ head coach, he has conditioned his players and fellow coaches to focus only on the task ahead.
That simple approach has helped the Bears to go 18-12 in December during Smith’s tenure.
“We take care of [games] one at a time,” Smith said. “All those things later on take care of themselves. We know what position we’re in. Guys read the paper.
“We just have to concentrate on Kansas City. That’s enough to keep us up.”
By doing so, the Bears could keep the Chiefs down.
The Chiefs have lost four consecutive games while adding to a long list of injured players that already included star running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry. One of the latest starters to sustain a season-ending injury was quarterback Matt Cassel, which pressed little-known backup quarterback Tyler Palko into action.
Palko has thrown for zero touchdowns and six interceptions in two starts, but Chiefs coach Todd Haley said Palko would start again today instead of veteran backup Kyle Orton. The Chiefs claimed Orton off waivers from the Denver Broncos less than two weeks ago.
In the past four games, the Chiefs have managed only one touchdown on offense. They have scored 13.9 points a game this season, which is third-to-last in the NFL.
“As an offense, the two things you have to do is put points on the board and not turn it over, and we’re not doing either of those right now,” Palko said. “Those are self-inflicted wounds. We have to find a way to fix it.”
Brian Urlacher and his teammates on the Bears’ defense have other goals in mind.
“We did good against the running game [against Oakland],” Urlacher said. “We did give up too many yards in the passing game, too many big plays. [We need to] fix that.”
The Bears have gone 5-1 at Soldier Field this season, ensuring their seventh consecutive season with a .500 record or better at home. With Hanie feeling more at ease and the defense coming into the game with an edge, another win on the lakefront could be in store.
“Home game,” Urlacher said simply. “We expect to win every home game.”