Just when things got good for the Chicago Bears, they went bad.
Fresh off a surprise 18-point home smothering of the NFL's reigning regular- season powerhouse, the Atlanta Falcons, Lovie Smith & Co. were primed and ready for a successful follow-up trip to the Big Easy.
But while the Bears will surely make the flight in time for Sunday's kickoff at the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints, they may very well do so without the man whom quarterback Jay Cutler unabashedly called "the heart and soul of this organization" on Wednesday.
Seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher left the team to be with family after the sudden death of his mother, Lavoyda, on Monday at her home in Texas. The 12-year veteran began the 2011 season in elite style last weekend, making 10 tackles, intercepting a Matt Ryan pass and returning a fumble for a touchdown in the Bears' 30-12 defeat of the Falcons, who entered last year's playoffs as the NFC's No. 1 seed.
Urlacher's status for this Week 2 game with the Saints remains in doubt, according to Smith, who said the linebacker had been among the first to call him when his own mother died during the offseason.
"Unless you've been through it, there's no way to make it any better than it is at the time," said Smith. "But he'll get through it."
Cutler completed 28-of-38 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns with one interception against the Falcons in the opening performance of his third year with the Bears after a controversial trade brought him from Denver in exchange for fellow quarterback Kyle Orton in 2009.
His thoughts were solely with his grieving teammate, however, after hearing the news of Urlacher's mother on Wednesday.
"You can't replace a guy like that," said Cutler of Urlacher. "You can't find a guy like that in the league. We all know he's going through a tough time right now, but we're going to respect his privacy and when he gets back we'll be here for him."
In New Orleans, the Saints open their 2011 home schedule after kicking off the league's overall slate with a memorable 42-34 loss to defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay on Sept. 8 at Lambeau Field. The game ended when New Orleans rookie running back Mark Ingram was stopped at the Packers' one-yard line on the final play.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns for the Saints, who were defending a Super Bowl title of their own last season before being eliminated with a surprising first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
A five-time Pro Bowler, Brees completed an NFL-best 68.1 percent of his passes for 4,620 yards, 33 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in 2010.
Offseason acquisition Darren Sproles caught seven Brees passes for 75 yards against the Packers, while two New Orleans receivers had six catches apiece and three others had four or more.
Veteran receiving ace Marques Colston will be out four weeks for New Orleans, however, after breaking his collarbone against the Packers and having a pin surgically implanted on Wednesday. His absence could be a big blow for a Saints team that will be facing an opponent that came within one game of reaching the Super Bowl last season.
"A lot of the focus around the league and in our conference and in [the Bears'] division is the Packers. Let's not forget that they are the ones who hosted the Packers in the NFC Championship Game," Brees noted. "They've been to two NFC Championship games, one Super Bowl in the last five years. They have the recipe and blueprint for success [and] how to win games."
Brees himself has never beaten the Bears.
"We've had maybe the misfortune of meeting them three times in Chicago and it hasn't ended very well for us," he said. "So we know the challenges. We're happy that it's our home opener."
The Bears own a 13-11 edge in their all-time regular-season series with the Saints and have won the last three matchups between the teams, the latest of which was a 27-24 overtime triumph in Chicago during the 2008 campaign. The Bears were handed a 20-13 loss by New Orleans in their last visit to the Superdome, however, which took place on Oct. 12, 2003 and stands as the Saints' most recent victory in the set. The Bears did record a 20-17 decision over New Orleans as the road team in 2005, though that game was held in Baton Rouge due to the Saints' displacement by Hurricane Katrina.
These teams have also squared off twice in the postseason, with the Bears prevailing on both occasions. Chicago came away with a 16-6 home win over New Orleans in a 1990 NFC First-Round Playoff and topped the Saints by a 39-14 score at Soldier Field in the 2006 NFC Championship.
Smith has won all four of his career meetings with New Orleans as a head coach. The Saints' Sean Payton, a native of Naperville, IL and a replacement quarterback for the Bears during the 1987 NFL players' strike, is 0-3 against both Chicago and Smith.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Cutler's 312 passing yards against Atlanta marked his second consecutive opening week of surpassing the 300-yard mark, and he's the only quarterback in Bears history with 300-plus yards in an opener. In his past four starts indoors, Cutler has completed 66.9 percent of his throws for 975 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, giving him a 119.0 passer rating. When he's reached a 100-plus rating in his career, Cutler's teams are 23-0. Running back Matt Forte, a native of Slidell, Louisiana and who played at Tulane, finished his college career as the school's leader in rushing yards per game (99.2), rush touchdowns (39) and overall touchdowns (44). As a pro, he had 158 scrimmage yards (90 receiving, 68 rushing) and a 56-yard reception last week. Elsewhere, wide receiver Devin Hester had a 55-yard touchdown catch and a 64- yard punt return touchdown in a 2007 meeting with the Saints.
Since entering the NFL in 2006, Saints safety Roman Harper has 10 sacks, which is tied for second most by a defensive back over that span. He had a half-sack in last week's loss and led the team with nine tackles. Up front, fifth-year defensive end Jeff Charleston had three tackles and linebackers Scott Shanle and Jonathan Vilma had seven apiece against the Packers.
The Bears are ninth in points scored and 12th in offensive yards (377) after one week, while the Saints gave up the most points in the league and are 25th out of the 32 teams in yards allowed (399) at the moment.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees' three touchdowns and no interceptions accounted for a 112.5 quarterback rating last week. Since joining the Saints in 2006, he leads the league in pass attempts (3,062), completions (2,052), passing yards (23,337) and touchdowns (158). Brees has also won 13 of his past 18 starts at home while completing 70.2 percent of his throws for 5,263 yards with 43 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 104.4 rating over that span. Sproles had 250 total yards (92 punt return, 76 kick return, 75 receiving, 7 rushing) last week, including a 72-yard punt return score. The ex-Charger is the first player since 2005 with a touchdown on his first punt return with a new team. In two previous meetings with Chicago, running back Pierre Thomas has 372 scrimmage yards (192 rushing, 180 receiving) and three touchdowns (2 receiving, 1 rushing). Wide receiver Devery Henderson had six catches for 100 yards and a 29-yard touchdown last week, while tight end Jimmy Graham aims for a fifth game in a row with a touchdown catch and has five scores in the Saints' past four games. Wide receiver Robert Meachem had a 31-yard touchdown catch last week and in his career, 13 of his 18 scoring grabs have gone for 25-plus yards.
As mentioned previously, Chicago's Urlacher had a 12-yard fumble return touchdown and an interception last week. Defensive end Julius Peppers added two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against the Falcons, and since entering the NFL in 2002, has compiled 91 sacks, the third-most in the league. Additionally, Peppers has five sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in his career against the Saints. Defensive tackle Henry Melton added two sacks last week, a career high.
New Orleans was fifth in points scored and third in total yardage (477) in Week 1, while Chicago's vaunted defense was fourth in points allowed, but 22nd in yards surrendered (386).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Urlacher's status will be the most important question of the week, but even if he plays, the uncertainty will center on his level of mental focus and missed preparation time against a prolific foe.
Brees has been traditionally tough to contain on a fast Superdome track and even without Colston, the addition of Sproles and Ingram give him plenty of options that will give the Chicago defense a challenge.
Cutler passed mental test No. 1 in his first outing after a widely-panned performance in last January's NFC title game. Two consecutive mistake-free outings will provide exponential momentum going forward, for both he and his team.
Even with its most well-known defensive player at 100 percent, going to New Orleans would be a tough enough assignment for Chicago. Without Urlacher at a peak, it gets substantially more difficult. Expect Brees and the New Orleans offense to be revved-up in front of a frenzied crowd and able to use enough of a varied arsenal to outpace Cutler and his less-prolific group. A game that will be close at halftime, but decisive late for the hosts.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, Bears 14