- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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The entire football world is searching for, if not a historically great team, at least a team to believe in.
Why not the Chicago Bears?
OK, 13-7 over the Detroit Lions wasn't a masterpiece, but then again who in professional football today is painting any of those? With a fourth straight win, a Gladiatorial victory over Detroit, the only team in the NFL with a longer winning streak than the Bears' is the undefeated but hard-to-buy Atlanta Falcons. And the Falcons don't play defense like these Bears do; nobody does. The Bears, rather defiantly, keep succeeding with a throwback style of defense the NFL has done everything to eliminate.
The Bears lined up Charles "Peanut" Tillman across from maybe the best receiver in the game, Calvin Johnson, and told him to "sic" Megatron, which is exactly what happened. The Bears have made the turnover such an art, the defensive players are absolutely convinced in some cult-like way that they're going to relieve offenses of the ball. Henry Melton gave voice to this after the game Monday night when he said, "It's going to pop out. It just is. The ball is going to come out." And how do you argue with him after the Bears forced the Lions into four more turnovers, three of which were inside the red zone?
They play offense in fits and starts, but Matt Forte and Michael Bush are a 1-2 punch in the face. And while the passing game is still searching, nobody seems to have any answer for Jay Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall, which produced a half-dozen receptions Monday night, including the team's only touchdown.
They're 5-1 with a home game next week against the lost Carolina Panthers, then a date with the Tennessee Titans. OK, we'll see what we see when the Bears go back-to-back with the Houston Texans at Soldier Field and the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. And maybe that's a two-step they're not up for; but until then, why not the Bears?
OK, maybe the Giants are just as good, but they've got a couple of clunker losses on the resume, including the season opener at home to the Cowboys, whom the Bears bludgeoned and stuffed in the trunk down in Dallas. The New England Patriots? How good are you if you need OT at home with the New York Jets? The Green Bay Packers appear to be hot again but an already suspect defense is now going to have to play without Charles Woodson for four to six weeks? Atlanta keeps getting benefit of the doubt despite looking like weaklings in the playoffs year after year.
The Bears, whose only loss this season was at Lambeau Field where the Packers ought to win, are a more complete team than the Falcons. A close win over a division opponent coming off a playoff season, which is what the Lions are, is more impressive than a close win at home over the Oakland Raiders, which is what the Falcons were sort of lucky to come away with.
The Bears took care of a Lions team that was riding some momentum after their big comeback win in Philly last week. It figured to be nasty and fight-filled and low-scoring because it's a division game in a division that expects to put three teams in the playoffs. The Lions arrived desperate and motivated, yet couldn't score until 30 seconds remained in the game.
Oh, the Bears want nothing to do with being at the top of anybody's power ratings. They want to fly under the radar, tip-toe through the season completely without notice. These aren't Ditka Bears, they're Lovie Bears, even if they play the same way, which is to say rely on smacking people in the mouth. As Brian Urlacher said before leaving the locker room, "There's a long way to go in this season. We've got four more division games. I don't want anybody to notice. I'd like to stay totally off the radar. You know what the problem is? Too many national TV games."
That's right. Thursday night in September against the Packers. Monday night in October against the Cowboys and Lions. Sunday night in November against the Texans, followed by Monday night in San Francisco.
Melton, the emerging defensive tackle, is less persuaded than Urlacher about people noticing, even with prime-time victories. "People just aren't going to believe in us, which is fine," Melton said. "No matter what we do, people have the Packers winning the division again. They don't, for whatever reason, see us as a top team. They'll put teams up there with two losses, three losses. It's fine. Really, it's fine."
If not many people are noticing. Jim Schwartz did, especially when it came to the defense and Tillman. "I think credit has to go to [Tillman]," the Lions coach said. "He matched Calvin pretty much the whole game, and they did a good job and combined that coverage with pass rush."
The skeptics perhaps look at the almost incomprehensible number of turnovers teams make against the Bears and consider it something of a fluke when it should be just the opposite. Why are teams coughing it up against the Bears more than anybody else? Maybe, just maybe, the Bears' defense and special teams are that good.
"We're playing this way," Urlacher said, "because we're coached to."
The Bears' defenders are convinced they run to the ball like no other team in the league. While defensive linemen on most teams see the ball leave the quarterback's hands and slow to a trot, the Bears' Melton, Israel Idonije, Stephen Paea, Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and now this missile of a pass rusher, rookie Shea McClellin, keep running their fool heads off.
It caused Melton to say afterward, "I just love this defense. I look up and somebody is punching the ball out, or a defensive back is diving for an interception. It's amazing watching us play. This is what we do."
Urlacher says Tillman, who was primarily responsible for holding Megatron (whom Matthew Stafford targeted 11 times) to three catches for 34 yards, is the NFL's defensive player of the year so far. In addition to covering the best receiver in football (actually, for my money, I'll take Larry Fitzgerald, but we're quibbling), Tillman forced two fumbles.
Lovie Smith is about as vanilla as it gets with his postgame comments, but even he said, "Calvin is one of the best players in the league. It's hard for Detroit to win games without him being productive. That's why you need a guy like Charles Tillman that can match up on him. And it made them go and look at other ways to get the ball down the field."
When asked if the Bears did anything different than usual against Johnson, Urlacher said, "No. The usual Cover 2."
It's not exclusively the defense that has pushed the Bears to 5-1. The offensive line, after that Packers game, has been somewhere between OK and pretty darned good. It opened up enough holes to get 171 rushing yards against the Lions. The pass blocking was fine, even if Cutler did get dumped by Ndamukong Suh, which brought a hush over Soldier Field.
Asked about that moment, Urlacher said, "Oooooh that was stressful. It looked like he was in pain. We all held our breath a little."
Like any team in the NFL, an injury of consequence to the starting quarterback virtually eliminates any chance at really contending, even if the Bears are much, much better prepared now with Jason Campbell than they were last season. The best news for the Bears, other than winning, might be that Cutler finished the game and seemed no worse for wear.
So, they go on their merry way, having won five of six this season and five straight last season with Cutler behind center. That's 10 wins in 11 regular-season games, the only loss coming on that Thursday night in Green Bay. Melton's probably right; the football pundits will look to New York now, or say the Falcons are what their record is, or figure than the Packers' slip-ups were just that.
But if the Bears continue playing the kind of defense the team played in the 2006 Super Bowl season and get incrementally better on offense they won't have to rely on the kindness of critics. And before long we'll find out whether these smothering performances against the Cowboys, Jaguars and Lions are just flexing against teams going nowhere or the stuff that contenders sustain over the course of an entire season.
With a smothering defense and emerging offense, the Bears might be the NFL's best.