I asked Lovie Smith last week how defining the season opener has been from his perspective as head coach. The years his team won the first game they were very defining, he said. The years his team lost, ''it's not that important,'' he added.
He was kidding.
''Seriously, I don't think you can put too much [into it]. It is one game and no more than that,'' he said.
The good news for Bears fans after Sunday's three-phase-strong 30-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons is that historically, the Bears' opener has been a harbinger of things to come. Rarely have the Bears fooled us on opening day -- and that goes back to the Halas era.
In fact, the only time the Bears have won as convincingly as they did Sunday and failed to have a winning season was in 1996, when the Bears beat the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys 22-6 on Monday Night Football at Soldier Field. The Bears lost five of their next six games and finished 7-9 in what turned out to be the pivotal season in Dave Wannstedt's tenure as head coach.
But despite the 16-point deficit, even in 1996 it was fairly clear that game was a misleading indicator. The Cowboys were without Pro Bowlers Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek. Emmitt Smith was injured in the fourth quarter. And while the Bears played an outstanding game, their margin-of-victory was fortified by two trick plays -- wide receiver Curtis Conway threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Raymont Harris on a reverse; and Todd Sauerbrun threw a 47-yard pass to Harris on a fake punt that set up a field goal.
But especially in the Lovie Smith era, the opener has been pretty indicative of the rest of the season -- most notably the 26-0 victory over the Packers in 2006, when the Bears went to the Super Bowl; and last year's 19-14 victory over the Lions -- when the Bears knocked Matthew Stafford out of the game and still needed a fortuitous call on Calvin Johnson's ''drop'' in the end zone to win. The Bears faced backup quarterbacks all season it seemed and rode a wave of good luck right to the NFC Championship Game.
Here's a look at the previous Bears openers under Lovie Smith:
2004: Lions 20, Bears 16 at Soldier Field.
Rex Grossman had the Bears on the verge of victory in the final moments, but ''one bone-headed mistake'' -- an ill-advised, poorly thrown pass for David Terrell in the end zone that was intercepted by Bracy Walker -- capped a day of promise and missed opportunities.
That's pretty much how it went in 2004, though Grossman only lasted two more games before a season-ending injury. Terry Shea's offense was a bad fit all year. The Bears lost six of their final seven games to finish 5-11.
2005: Redskins 9, Bears 7 at Washington.
With rookie Kyle Orton starting and Ron Turner in his first year of his second stint as the Bears' offensive coordinator, the Bears struggled offensively, but their defense was excellent in a close loss to a Redskins team bound for the playoffs.
The offense showed signs of potential under Turner. The defense looked like it could carry the team. Adewale Ogunley, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs had sacks. Briggs, Ogunleye and Charles Tillman forced fumbles. Nathan Vasher had an interception. Mike Brown had nine tackles. Tommie Harris had a fumble recovery.
''The damnedest thing was that the Bears didn't look that far away from being pretty good,'' columnist Rick Morrissey, my Sun-Times colleague working for another paper at the time, wrote that day.
The Bears beat the Lions 38-6 at Soldier Field the following week and finished 11-5 to make the playoffs.
2006: Bears 26, Packers 0 at Lambeau Field.
Rex Grossman threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian on the sixth play of the game, the Bears sacked Brett Favre three times (Briggs, Mark Anderson and Alex Brown) and intercepted Favre twice (Tillman, Danieal Manning) and the Bears were on their way to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship.
2007: Chargers 14, Bears 3 at Qualcomm Stadium.
The Bears appeared on their way to an impressive victory over an AFC title contender on the road, leading 3-0 late in the third quarter. But a punt bounced off Brandon McGowan and was recovered by the Chargers and LaDanian Tomlinson threw a touchdown pass to Antonio Gates on a halfback option. After a fumble by Adrian Peterson, Tomlinson scored again, on play after Mike Brown suffered a season-ending injury.
Even in defeat, the Bears looked like they were in for another big year. But season-ending injuries to Brown and Dusty Dvoracek exposed other holes in the Bears' defense: defensive end Mark Anderson (starting ahead of Alex Brown), safety Adam Archuleta and cornerback Trumaine McBride
The offense took a step back without Thomas Jones, but the defense dropped like a rock -- from fifth in yards allowed in 2006 to 28th. The Bears finished 7-9.
2008: Bears 29 Colts 13 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Even at the time, it didn't look quite as impressive as it appeared. Peyton Manning was recovering from offseason knee surgery and had not played in the preseason. The rust showed, as Manning was 30-of-49 for 257 yards and a touchdown, including 10-of-20 for 119 yards in the first half.
Matt Forte surprised the Colts on third-and-6, breaking through the line for a 50-yard touchdown run. He gained 73 yards on his other 22 carries. The Bears scored nine points on defense -- a safety when Adewale Ogunleye tackled Joseph Addai in the end zone; and Lance Briggs' 21-yard fumble return.
The Bears had potential, but never reached it. They finished 9-7 after losing 31-24 at Houston with a playoff berth on the line in the season finale.
2009: Packers 21, Bears 15 at Lambeau Field.
Jay Cutler threw four interceptions, but a valiant defensive effort somehow kept the Bears in the game. Adewale Ogunleye had two sacks of Aaron Rodgers; Danieal Manning had one for a safety and rookie safety Al Afalava also had a sack.
Robbie Gould's 21-yard field goal gave the Bears a 15-13 lead with 2:35 to go. But Rodgers threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings with 1:11 left to win it for the Packers.
A close game, but it was more ominous than encouraging. Brian Urlacher suffered a dislocated bone in his right wrist and was lost for the season. Cutler's penchant for interceptions would hound him all season. And Ogunleye's sacks came against Allen Barbre, who would be replaced by midseason. Ogunleye had 4 1/2 sacks in the following 15 games.
The Urlacher injury cast a different light on the game. The Bears beat the Steelers, Seahawks and Lions to go 3-1, but lost eight of their next 10 and finished 7-9.
2010: Bears 19, Lions 14 at Soldier Field.
Even in victory, the Bears made believers out of no one when they outgained the Lions 463-168, but needed a fourth-quarter rally to win after falling behind 14-3 in the first half. Matt Forte's had two touchdown catches -- an 89-yarder on a screen pass and a 28-yarder that gave the Bears th lead with 1:28 left. And the Lions looked like winners on Johnson's apparent touchdown catch. But a technicality -- Johnson lost possession of the ball as he got up after making the catch -- saved the Bears.
The Bears ended up surprising almost everybody to finish 11-5, win the NFC North and reach the NFC Championship Game. But mostly because they rarely lost the golden touch that helped them win the opener.
So barring a key injury -- always a possibility -- the Bears are more likely to finish 10-6 than the low-end 8-8/7-9 that skeptics are predicting. And it's worth noting that they still have things going their way: even Urlacher acknowledged that playing the Falcons at home was a good break. It could turn out that there was no better time to play them than in the season opener. And the Saints' Marques Colston suffered a broken collarbone against the Packers last week and will not play against the Bears in New Orleans. It's happening all over again.