CHICAGO (CBS)–A cold and gray January sky was no match for the blazing grills, flowing beer and high spirits that filled Soldier Field’s south parking lot Sunday.
Tailgaters decked out in orange and blue pre-gamed before the Chicago Bears took on the Philadelphia Eagles in the wildcard round of the NFC playoffs.
This week, as the Bears prepared to host the Eagles in the first-round playoff game, Bears coach Matt Nagy credited the team’s passionate fans with boosting the Bears’ home-field advantage.
“This is where it gets real,” Nagy wrote on Chicagobears.com. “It’s exciting to have one at home, and again I’m just going to let everybody know here in Chicago how important it is to get those fans to be as crazy as tehy’ve ever been–and I can’t wait for it.”
Bears fans did not disappoint.
Tailgaters were out in full force as soon as the gates opened to crowds around noon.
Some fans were modest tailgaters, standing around munching on hot dogs with friends and chatting about the game.
Others went all out. Ditka impersonators and bear masks dotted the crowd, and fans lined up to do shots in unison from a ski.
“This is the most electric crowd I’ve seen here since 2006,” Bears fan Brandon Hoy said of Sunday’s tailgate parties. “I give it a 9 out of 10.”
Hoy, who lives near Iowa City, got up early Sunday morning to drive to Chicago for the game with his buddies, Donovan Ward, Kevin Whitehair, Brian Wirtz and Bryce Wirtz.
Sunday’s game felt like Christmas for Brian Wirtz. He had never been to an NFL game before, and his son Bryce surprised him with the tickets as a gift for the holidays.
“It’s special because I get to be here with my son,” Wirtz said.
With a 7-1 home record this season (they lost to the Patriots), the Bears have enjoyed their best home record since they went 7-1 in 2005. This is also the first year the team has defeated all three of their NFC North opponents in Chicago since 2010.
In both 2005 and 2010, the Bears won their division with an 11-5 record.
Bears fan Miranda Weaver has attended a few Bears games this season, and said Soldier Field has “come alive” with energy this year compared to past seasons.
“People stand up for the whole game,” Weaver said. “I bring my 1-year-old to the games, and I just end up holding her in my arms the entire game.”
After trekking to Chicago from Indianapolis, Weaver enjoyed the tailgating scene alongside her husband Dustin Weaver, family friend Scott Greiner and her father-in-law, Wade Weaver.
The energy at Soldier Field this year was undeniable, Greiner said.
“My ears were ringing after the games–like I had just left a concert,” he said.
For some Bears fans, Sunday’s game was less about winning than it was about getting in a little family bonding time.
Lifelong friends Brian Malpeli and Jim Olson brought their 17-year-old sons, Sean Malpeli and Ethan Olson, to the game at the last minute after they were gifted tickets.
“We all love the Bears–we’re Chicagoans,” Brian Malpeli said. “(But) this is not about whether the Bears win or lose–we’re here to build experience with our boys that will last a lifetime.”
Ethan Malpeli said he opted to cancel plans with his girlfriend so he could go to the game with his dad.
“She’s a little upset,” Ethan said while waiting in a long port-o-potty line. “She left me on ‘read.'”
Hopefully a Bears win will help ease the pain.