(WSCR) – The Chicago Bears ended the season as the second best team in the NFC, a far cry from where they started the season in most people’s eyes.

So it’s not a stretch to say the Bears have made some big strides since they last played the Seattle Seahawks.

They were reeling back then.

It was hard to envision the Bears making the postseason after Seattle beat them at Soldier Field on Oct. 17, yet they’re in for the first time in four years after winning the NFC North and earning a first-round bye.

Now, Chicago is staring at the Seahawks again. Seattle shocked defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans over the weekend, an upset that few saw coming from a team that slipped in by winning the NFC West with a 7-9 record.

By knocking off Drew Brees and the Saints, Seattle opened more than a few eyes. Then again, it already had the Bears’ attention.

“It got our attention the first time we played them this year,” Chicago’s Devin Hester said. “We know that they’re a great team. That game doesn’t surprise me at all. We saw what happened when we faced them. So we know we can’t have the same mistakes that we had earlier.”

The Seahawks are returning to the site of their most impressive performance in the regular season, a 23-20 victory that came during the low point for the Bears.

For Chicago, the loss was the second in a 1-3 skid that just about destroyed the season.

Jay Cutler returned from a concussion and got pounded again while completing just 17 of 39 passes for 290 yards. He was sacked six times after being sacked nine times in the first half against the New York Giants in his previous game two weeks earlier.

The Bears continued to ignore the running game, rushing for 61 yards on 14 attempts. With no balance on offense, they didn’t convert a single third down, going 0 for 12, and the defense couldn’t bail them out.

It didn’t help that linebacker Lance Briggs missed the game with an injured left ankle, but even so, it was a rare off day for a unit that ranked among the league’s stingiest.

Julius Peppers had a rare quiet game with just three tackles and no quarterback pressures, and Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck had his way, throwing for 242 yards and a touchdown.

“We didn’t play well that game,” Peppers said. “We played OK. We didn’t play up to our standards. That’s something we’re going to take a look at.”

When they lost another home game the following week to struggling Washington, it was hard to imagine the sort of turnaround the Bears orchestrated, but the team that emerged after a week off hardly resembled the one that stumbled into its break.

There were big changes, particularly on offense. There were big results, too – seven wins in eight games before a loss at Green Bay to close the regular season.

They committed to the run, settled on a rotation on the offensive line and it all helped take the load off Cutler. The Bears were one of the most balanced teams over the final nine games, with 258 rushing attempts and 276 pass plays (including sacks).

“We had a chance to really look at, evaluate what we had done,” coach Lovie Smith said. “I think everyone expects you to be playoff-ready right away. We weren’t. We needed a little bit of time to grow and see exactly what they would be. As far as change, I think we kind of figured out a little bit what direction we wanted to go, but I think we’re really the same team.”

Well, not exactly.

What they are is a team that ultimately adapted – particularly on offense. They went away from the seven-step drops and started getting the ball out of Cutler’s hands quicker.

They’re a team that found its winning formula, and the key ingredient was balance.

“We’re a better team, no doubt, but they are too, no doubt,” Smith said. “And both teams should be this time of the year. We had the bye week to rest up, and we’re healthy, too. As much as anything, we should get our best effort. I just want the guys to play the best game they can possibly play, and we’ll be satisfied with the results.”

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