Since the Bears and Indianapolis Colts met in Super XLI on Feb. 4, 2007, they have taken decidedly divergent paths in their attempts to repeat the success they enjoyed that season.
Since then, the Colts have gone 39-9 in the regular season, making the playoffs each year, and they'll be playing for their second Super Bowl title in four seasons next Sunday.
The Bears have gone the opposite direction, going 23-25 in the regular season and missing the playoffs each year.
Why such disparity?
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is the most obvious reason and probably the most important. While he has started every game in between and including both Super Bowls, the Bears have used Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, Kyle Orton and now Jay Cutler, with varying degrees of success, though failure might be the more accurate term.
Still, even though Manning won his fourth league MVP this season, it's not just about the quarterback as the Bears clearly have significant problems on both sides of the ball.
First of all, the Colts were the better team back then, as evidenced by their 29-17 victory. But they've also done a better job of keeping their team intact and filling the holes with talented replacements.
Eleven players who started for the Colts in Super Bowl XLI are expected to start in Super Bowl XLIV, while only nine Bears who started in the Super Bowl three years ago were starters in 2009. And that's a stretch considering middle linebacker Brian Urlacher missed 15 games with a dislocated wrist, safety Danieal Manning was demoted to nickel back for the final month of the season, and linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer was a starter only because of injuries to Urlacher and Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Disgruntled Bears fans would be quick to blame poor drafts for the team's inability to maintain a postseason presence. The Bears, however, have been able to replace more starters through the draft than the Colts, but then the Bears also had more holes to fill.
Since Super Bowl XLI, the Bears have added six starters through the draft: offensive left tackle Chris Williams, running back Matt Forte, wide receiver Earl Bennett, tight end Greg Olsen, cornerback Zack Bowman and safety Al Afalava. (Kevin Payne, has been in and out of the starting lineup).
Over the same time, the Colts have found five starters through the draft: linebackers Philip Wheeler and Clint Session, cornerback Jerraud Powers, wide receiver Pierre Garcon and offensive left tackle Charlie Johnson.
Where Colts have surpassed the Bears and most other teams is by doing a spectacular job of signing undrafted rookies and off-the-street free agents who have developed into starting-caliber players.
Consider this fact: five Colts who are slated to start against New Orleans were acquired for next to nothing:
• Right guard Kyle Devan was an undrafted rookie signed by the Washington Redskins who came to Indy last April via the Jets' practice squad and Arena2 football.
• H-back Gijon Robinson was signed by the Colts as an undrafted rookie out of Missouri Western State in 2007, and spent that season on their practice squad.
• Defensive tackle Antonio Johnson was drafted by the Titans in the fifth round in 2007, and the Colts signed him off the Titans' practice squad in November of '08.
• The Colts' other starting defensive tackle, Daniel Muir, was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2007, as was strong safety Melvin Bullitt.
While the Colts have filled gaps on their roster by finding hidden gems in the bargain basement, the Bears and most other NFL teams have chosen the pricier route of unrestricted free agency or trade.
Cutler cost the Bears two first-round picks, a third-rounder and Orton.
And while the Bears haven't spent lavishly in free agency, guard Frank Omiyale will cost them at least $11.5 million over four years, offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer came with a $6 million price tag over three years, while nose tackle Anthony Adams was a bargain at four years for $4.3 million.
By avoiding the big-ticket free agents, the Colts have enough money to pay Manning the $99.2 million he got for a seven-year deal in 2004.
The Bears, however, chose to let some starters go elsewhere, such as wide receiver Bernard Berrian, running backs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson and defensive tackle Tank Johnson. Jones - and especially Benson - have enjoyed more success after leaving than they did in Chicago.
Bears fans don't have to look at the Colts to feel despondent. To win the Super Bowl, the Colts will have to defeat the New Orleans Saints, a team the Bears brushed aside 39-14 to reach Super Bowl XLI. Sean Payton, a rookie coach from Naperville during that 2006-07 season, has only eight players from that playoff roster. He has directed the Saints to a 30-20 record since losing to the Bears.
As all three teams have proven, a lot can happen in three years.