GLENDALE, Ariz. — From miles away in the sprawling Arizona landscape that surrounds it, visitors can spot the massive steel marvel of technology and design that is the University of Phoenix Stadium.
Around the NFL, observers consider the home of the Cardinals that seems as if it were plopped in the middle of a desert one of the most impressive facilities in the league.
To the Bears, it remains a mirage.
Inside the building during a dramatic 2006 visit, the Bears fooled themselves into thinking that an opportunistic defense could overcome a limited offense well enough to win a Super Bowl — and it nearly did. In retrospect, that memorable 20-point rally without an offensive touchdown only distorted football reality in Chicago for the next six years. Many saw what Lovie Smith wanted them to see: a defensively driven NFL franchise competing for a championship despite lacking a modern, bona fide offense.
The Bears returned here Sunday for a deceivingly easy 28-13 victory that kept their postseason hopes alive, but anybody using that as proof they can make a playoff run spent too much time this weekend in the Valley sun. The Bears' southwest sojourn hardly should have removed the heat on Smith. But it's dry heat.
"It was a simple goal for our team this week: Get our ninth win,'' Smith said.
As simply as schematically possible, the Bears offense helped meet that goal. It scored 14 points and managed just 297 total yards — the ninth time this season the Bears have failed to surpass 300 yards. The Bears defense matched the offense on the scoreboard with two touchdowns, outscoring the Cardinals. This isn't what anybody meant about seeking a more balanced attack.
Not that those dressed in Bears jerseys and orange hats among the crowd of 62,734 complained. Spontaneous chants of "Let's go Bears!'' broke out. Brian Urlacher might say the Bears get cheered more than any road team in the league. A fatigued Bears fan might say they deserve better from an offense that has scored more than two touchdowns in a game only once since Nov. 11.
"It wasn't the best game,'' Jay Cutler said, speaking for himself and the offense.
It wasn't a game that did anything but make a potential Bears playoff opponent feel like the luckiest team in the field. The Cardinals came in leading the NFL in interceptions. Mike Tice interpreted that as an invitation to call 17 passes compared with 11 runs in the first half. What does it say when the most impressive touchdown drive in weeks came amid chaos with no timeouts at the end of the second quarter?
"I can't really give you a reason why we hit on those plays but we miss on others,'' Cutler said.
Nor can anybody come up with a valid reason why a Bears offense with the season on the line couldn't move the ball better against a Cardinals team playing for draft position.
"They have good football players, a good front,'' Smith offered. "We didn't expect to come in here and score 50 points.''
You know, like the Seahawks did against the same defense two weeks ago.
It would be nice to put a bow on the Bears' first win of December to pretty it up. Truth is, the Cardinals came bearing gifts on their second series. Beanie Wells coughed up the ball without contact at the 1 and it just lay there for Bears cornerback Zack Bowman. Bowman, a special-teamer used in two-tight end formations, pounced and rolled into the end zone.
"Johnny on the spot,'' Bowman said. "It's the holidays and I got my present early.''
'Tis the season for the Cardinals' offensive depth chart to keep giving. When Brian Hoyer replaced starter Ryan Lindley, somewhere, Jonathan Quinn plotted a comeback. Lindley was pulled after Charles Tillman returned an interception for a touchdown. Hoyer nearly matched that with a late pick that Kelvin Hayden returned to the 10. The Cardinals' clown car of quarterbacks resembles the Bears' 2004 model.
That cannot be ignored when evaluating the Bears holding the Cardinals to 248 yards, Julius Peppers making three sacks or the defense dominating enough to tempt many to say all is well again at Halas Hall. The first half of the season taught us not to fall into that trap again.
Now the Bears find themselves in the awkward position of pulling for their NFC North rivals to beat the Vikings.
"I've always been a big Packers fan,'' kidded Smith, who has had good seats for many big Green Bay wins in recent years.
Take care of the Lions first. They look beatable, but the Bears reminded us Sunday things aren't always what they seem in the NFL.