It wasn't supposed to be Week 14 when the Bears finally fired on all cylinders, but that's exactly what they did for the first time in Thursday's stunning 31-24 handling of the Dallas Cowboys to improve to 7-6, their first time back above .500 since the Week 6 bye.
Chicago's best victory in a mostly disappointing NFC North title defense season that began with bonafide Super Bowl aspirations hardly means it will now end back in the playoffs. Instead, it means Bears fans have reason to continue hoping, if not for January football, that Matt Nagy, Mitch Trubisky and Co. at least turned a corner.
"I’ve talked about trying to find that identity — we’ve been searching for it. We finally feel like, the last several weeks, we feel good about where we’re at," Matt Nagy said.
But it wasn't trending that way early after Dallas won the toss and marched 75 yards on 17 plays, chewing up nearly nine minutes of clock and capping a dominating drive with a two-yard Zeke Elliott TD run. It certainly didn't appear to be Chicago's night when leading tackler Roquan Smith's ended after only those 17 plays because of a pectoral injury, or subsequently following Mitch Trubisky's fourth red-zone interception of the season, just when it appeared the Bears would tally back-to-back game-opening TD drives for the first time all year.
"We played a full game tonight across the board," Nagy said. "Had some adversity early, but no one flinched, and that's what we know we want to keep growing from."
All the Bears did next was score on their ensuing four possessions, three ending in Trubisky TD passes. The scoring surge included a quick slant to Allen Robinson for five yards and a laser over the middle to Robinson on the next series from eight yards out on third-and-goal with only 14 seconds remaining to take a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Bears then returned from the break to march 84 yards, consuming nearly half of the third quarter, and punctuate only their second "double dip" of the season on Anthony Miller's nifty 14-yard run-after-catch score for his first touchdown of the season.
Firing on all cylinders was hardly limited to an offense that spent most of the season firing blanks.
Without Smith and three other starters, the defense was spectacular, channeling its Week 4 shorthanded heroics by forcing three-and-outs on four of the five possessions following the game-opening TD drive. A Dallas offense that led the NFL in yardage and third downs was limited to 331 and 36 percent.
Dallas' first score after halftime proceeded a David Montgomery fumble near midfield and required two fourth-down conversions, including Elliott's second TD dive. Their other TD drive, spanning 100 yards, came late in the fourth quarter with the Bears in total command, when Kevin Toliver — who'd played only four snaps on 'D' before earning the start in Prince Amukamara's absence — was beat by Cowboys star Amari Cooper.
But this night didn't belong to the Dallas star. For the second consecutive week, it undoubtedly belonged to Trubisky.
On a night when he rediscovered his dangerous dual-threat skills — another first this season — none of his nine carries for a season-high 64 yards was more spectacular than the 23-yard juke-and-jive scamper following Elliott's touchdown. Showing off not only his athleticism but run instincts that have been mostly absent in a difficult season, Trubisky totaled his fourth touchdown overall, the exclamation point on what felt like his NFL coming-out party in Year 3: 23-of-31 for 244 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT (115.5), on top of his ground production.
"The best part of that for me was how excited my teammates got afterwards," Trubisky said of his rushing touchdown and the jubilation that followed, including a rejoice with Leno and even Eddie Jackson running on the field. "So really cool moment."
So even if what's easily the Bears' best performance of the season comes to late to salvage their season, with trips to Lambeau and US Bank in Minnesota flanked around a home date with the Chiefs — all three teams currently ticketed for the playoffs — and a bunch of help still required to join them in playing January football, Trubisky's development is the next important thing.
And unlike the baby steps Trubisky may or may not have taken during what Matt Nagy repeatedly claimed were four consecutive strong games prior to Thursday — two of which were sub-70 passer rating performances, including what many still feel was a benching in L.A. — Trubisky building on last week's coming-of-age in crunch time against an awful Lions 'D' by again bouncing back from an early interception to display complete control vs. one of the more talented defenses in football marks unmistakable and undoubtedly impressive growth.
"It's not just one person; it’s everybody," Nagy said. And when you have the entire offense, everybody working together in unison, it makes your job as a quarterback a lot easier."
Added Leno: "He’s just doing his job. I told him before the game, just be the best you that you can possibly be."
Thursday night, Trubisky did exactly that.