CHICAGO — As Bears fans filed out of Soldier Field on Sunday, they immediately began reaching for superlatives, breathlessly trying to describe the significance of the team’s next game.
“It’s going to be the biggest game here in 50 years,” said Mike Panfil, 37, Des Pl
“It’s going to be the biggest game in the city of Chicago, arguably ever,” said Ron Lange, 39, of Chicago.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest games ever, even bigger than the Super Bowl, maybe,” said Rich Rios, 45, from Chicago.
The game they were referring to was the game they had been dreaming of: the Bears versus the Green Bay Packers next weekend at Soldier Field, with the winner going to the Super Bowl.
The possibility of such a game had been on the tips of fans’ tongues all day. But first, the Bears had to beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game, which they did by a score of 35-24.
The Bears won before a sellout crowd who braved sub-freezing temperatures and snow flurries to watch one of the team’s better displays this season — at least for three quarters.
They came prepared for the elements, cheering beneath blankets, behind scarves and inside hoodies. They stashed hand warmers and foot warmers inside their gloves and boots. They placed their feet on strips of cardboard to keep off the chill from the icy cement.
For many fans, the day began early. Buses and trailers began arriving around 8 a.m. to begin tailgate parties. In parking lots outside Soldier Field, fans huddled for warmth next to grills cooking sausage, sirloin and venison, their breath visible as puffs of steam.
At one tailgate party, Jeff Meyer, 32, of Lake in the Hills, said his fingers were “a little numb” but there was no place he would rather be than at a Bears playoff game.
“You can’t ask for anything better than this,” he said.
As the Bears got off to an early lead, fans hugged and offered each other high-fives. After quarterback Jay Cutler found tight end Greg Olsen for a 58-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Dave Cernugel, 35, of Chicago, and his brother, Jim, sang the Bears fight song at the top of their lungs.
Fans not only braced against the cold; they embraced the frigid temperatures, citing it as an advantage against the Seahawks. As the snow began to fall in the first quarter, Mike Lanners, 34, of Lake Villa, who sat in the highest row of the nosebleed section, declared this “Bears’ weather.”
“You can’t ask for anything better,” he said.
After the last playoff game the Bears hosted — the NFC Championship four years ago against the New Orleans Saints — Chicago media outlets were flooded with reports from angry Saints fans who said they were treated poorly.
But on Sunday, Seahawks fan Josh Axene said Bears fans were “by far the nicest” fans he had ever encountered, even though his Seahawks’ jersey drew heckling from several fans during the game. As he spoke, a Bears fan yelled at him: “Go back to the West Coast, Seahawks fan!”
“It’s going to be a long flight home,” said Axene, who flew from San Diego to see his beloved Seahawks.
As he left Soldier Field, Bears fan Brian Shute tried to explain the difference between Chicago and Seattle.
“All Seattle has is clam strips and garlic fries,” said Schute, 38 of Des Plaines, Ill. “We have the Bears!”
With the Bears winning 28-3 going into the fourth quarter, many fans left Soldier Field before the end of the game, missing two late touchdowns by the Seahawks.
But it was too little too late, with the Bears earning themselves a spot in the NFC Championship game next week against the Packers.
As Bears fans described the upcoming matchup with their rival, it was as if nothing else mattered, not even the game being played Feb. 6 in Dallas for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“The Super Bowl is right here next week,” said Ted Sorensen, 56, of Glen Ellyn, Ill.
Nolan Soper was 7 years old the last time the Bears played in the NFC Championship. Nolan, now 11, of Romeoville, Ill., said this championship game would be even bigger. To play against the Bears’ main rival, with the winner going to the Super Bowl, was “destiny.”
“Nobody likes the Packers, if you’re a Bears fan,” Nolan said. “It’s going to be epic.”
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