By Dan Bernstein–

Prominent aspects of this year’s Bears discussion are winding together for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Patriots at Soldier Field.

It is the rare regular-season game truly worthy of our hype and expectation – as important both locally and league-wide as any in memory. Here are three themes that will be merging as the icy winds whip Soldier Field’s newly-replaced sod:

Lovie Smith came into the season teetering. Fans fatigued by both lukewarm results and his anodyne persona were rooting for him to fail, in an effort to force stodgy owners to clear him out, perhaps along with GM Jerry Angelo.

But then funny things happened, as calls, injuries and outcomes began to benefit the Bears. Wins have been compiled, even if in unspectacular or unconvincing fashion. Smith’s stubborn belief in his defensive system has been vindicated by its performance. Angelo’s desperate acquisition of Julius Peppers did nothing less than give them the NFL’s most dominant defensive end.

A win over Bill Belichick would be a win for both coach and personnel boss. Smith is not the type to explicitly direct his critics to kiss a certain body part of his, but he would be able to do so.

The offensive coordinator rescued from exile got his chance to get his pass-happy freak on, but was chastened after his pet plays could not be blocked. Though he arrived after stints in two other cities soured and ended amid conflict over run/pass balance, a similar concern here appears to have been resolved peacefully, if perhaps temporarily.

In Belichick, Mike Martz confronts an old nemesis – a defensive strategist who defeated the Greatest Show On Turf in the Super Bowl. That loss clearly stings Martz, as evidenced by his defensiveness this week when asked about it.

That nerve is still raw, and whatever has been used to suppress his big-play instincts will be tested, regardless of weather conditions.

Thirdly, Jay Cutler’s recent play is showing that he is shrinking the gap between his limitless talent and the on-field results. Behind a largely ineffective offensive line, Cutler has been more efficient and more elusive, raising his passer rating to a franchise-record 92.8 while being sacked more than any other quarterback in the league.

Questions surrounded the team’s commitment to him after an erratic first season, and complications arose in his acclimation to his third offense in three years. The answers since the Bears’ off week have all been positive.

His counterpart Sunday might be the NFL MVP. Tom Brady seems to never make a mistake, and sets the standard for awareness, risk calculation and emotional control. Everything fans want Cutler to emulate will be on the same field.

We say a lot of things about Bears games, spending weekday afternoons describing the pending drama and significance of whatever the upcoming Sunday may bring.

This game pits the 10-2 Patriots against the 9-3 Bears. The league’s top franchise travels to meet a team looking for a win that would likely punch its playoff ticket.

This one merits all the talk.

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