- Adam Schefter, NFL
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Might be time to line up the choreographers. Might be time to script a new Super Bowl Shuffle. This Chicago defense, like the Bears' 1985 defense, is dancing through its schedule, over opponents and into history.
Da Bears' D is daunting.
Here's how good Chicago's defense has been as it heads into Sunday night's potential Super Bowl preview against the Houston Texans before a potential NFC Championship Game preview at San Francisco on Nov. 19: Comparisons to the greatest Bears defense of them all are now valid, at least through the first half of the season.
Before anyone dismisses that notion, just take a look at the numbers for each unit after eight games. They're closer than Tuesday's voting for the U.S. presidency. Look and compare:
Chicago's '85 defense was stingier, but this year's Bears are putting up comparable numbers at a time when offenses are putting up unparalleled production. So in a way, the Bears' defensive stats this year might be even more impressive than those of the '85 Bears just because of the different time periods in which they played. Plus, this year's Bears defense scores more.
The Bears have surrendered only seven passing touchdowns this season, as many as the defense has scored itself -- so it's a wash there. Chicago's seven defensive touchdowns were four fewer than Jacksonville had scored all season before the Jaguars' Thursday night game against the Colts. With cornerbacks Charles Tillman stripping footballs and Tim Jennings intercepting them, with linebackers Lance Briggs recovering fumbles and Brian Urlacher causing them, different Bears score every week.
Chicago's defense has morphed into another form of offense. It gives the Bears the type of ammunition they need to become, arguably, the most dangerous team in the league.
Chicago's defense is back in a way football historians can appreciate. And there are certain things like strong Raiders teams or successful Cowboys seasons that can make NFL seasons more compelling. Watching Chicago's defense perform at this level is one.
Tillman is playing at an NFL Defensive Player of the Year level. Jennings is proving to be one of the best free-agent acquisitions in recent years. Urlacher is bolstering his Hall of Fame résumé. Briggs is making more plays than any linebacker. And Chicago's defense not only is drawing raves, but more impressive, comparisons.
As Chicago's 1985 defense dominated opponents, it was hard to envision ever seeing a defense as good. But this year's Bears defense has pushed its way into the conversation.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. Payton complications: From now through February, Sean Payton's unresolved contract situation will hang over New Orleans, Dallas and any team that considers making a head coaching change. But there are some notable points that got lost in the hullabaloo surrounding Payton's unsettled contractual situation.
For starters, Saints ownership and Payton himself signed off on the in-dispute clause that said Payton could leave New Orleans if general manager Mickey Loomis ever did, yet the NFL didn't.
Few around the league could remember a time when the NFL vetoed a coaching contract as it did with Payton's when both sides constructing the deal were good with it. The league never blocked the Bill Parcells contract that enabled him to walk away with all his money if Wayne Huizenga ever sold the Dolphins, as happened, and some are wondering why the league did it this time.
Now, the bounty scandal that has introduced multiple unprecedented situations looks like it could add more. Payton's contract with the Saints expires after New Orleans' season. Payton's suspension doesn't end until after the Super Bowl, and even then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell first must reinstate him. If any team wants to interview Payton in January, it will not be able to do so.
Coaching searches could be disrupted and rearranged to accommodate the possibility that a team might be able to lure Payton to its city. But it also leaves New Orleans and Dallas as the two most viable spots. Other teams will struggle to wait until February for a chance to hire Payton. Only New Orleans and Dallas can, because Cowboys owner Jerry Jones simply can pay off the remaining balance on Jason Garrett's contract, which has two seasons left.
But just as there has been uncertainty surrounding the bounty scandal, the same is true of Payton, who was not mentioned in the evidence but still received the stiffest punishment of all.
2. Peterson's comeback amazes: Not sure whether Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is eligible for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award, given that he tore up his knee in the last game of last season, Dec. 24 at Washington. But his comeback is one of the most impressive in NFL history.
Peterson ran for 182 yards against Seattle and leads the league in rushing. People thought Peterson would be back, just not this soon.
He has become a model for anyone recovering from a significant knee injury as well as one of the most inspirational stories of the season.
3. Small schools, big results: Once again, we see teams can find running backs in the most off-the-beaten-path places. Last weekend, three Division II running backs scored touchdowns and helped lead their teams to victory.
Pittsburgh running back Isaac Redman, who went to Division II Bowie State in Maryland, rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown during the Steelers' 24-20 victory over the Giants. Detroit running back Joique Bell, who went to Division II Wayne State in Michigan, rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown during the Lions' 31-14 victory over the Jaguars. And New Orleans running back Chris Ivory, who went to Division II Tiffin University in Ohio, rushed for 48 yards and a touchdown during the Saints' 28-13 victory over the Eagles. And these aren't the only small-school backs excelling.
Buffalo's Fred Jackson went to Division III Coe College, New England's Danny Woodhead attended Division II's Chadron State, Jacksonville's Rashad Jennings went to FCS Liberty University, and Rams rookie Daryl Richardson went to Division II Abilene Christian.
The moral out there for young running backs is this: Just because a college powerhouse doesn't come calling doesn't mean your chances of making it are zero. Plenty have done it; plenty more will.
4. Rookie on rampage: Only a running back as good and productive as Tampa Bay's Doug Martin could challenge Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The past two weeks, Martin has put up ridiculous, video game-like numbers: 486 combined rushing and receiving yards and six touchdowns. In two weeks!
As much as Martin should be saluted, credit also should be doled out in other places. Buccaneers fullback Erik Lorig is blocking at a Pro Bowl level, and the reshuffled offensive line has endured more changes than any line in the league without anyone's noticing. It lost Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph to a season-ending knee injury this summer and Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending toe injury last week.
With backup and benched players, Martin has made a run at history and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Not too many complaints about Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano these days.
5. Don't ignore 49ers' Smith: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt has garnered plenty of attention, but another member of his 2011 draft class, San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith, actually has more sacks the past two seasons.
Since becoming the 11th overall pick of last year's draft, Watt has 16 sacks. Smith, the No. 7 pick, has 21.5 sacks, including two during Monday night's dominating victory over Arizona. The two play in entirely different schemes, and Smith is given more of a chance to rush the quarterback. But still.
Now Smith is preparing for a shaky Rams offensive line, against which he might be able to add to numbers that haven't received enough attention across the league.
6. It could get personal: Across the league, it's Reunion Sunday, where former colleagues will renew acquaintances, some on better terms than others.
Broncos coach John Fox will return to Carolina, where he used to coach, to lead Denver against the Panthers. Former Chargers and current Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson will have the chance to play against general manager A.J. Smith's San Diego team.
But maybe the most intriguing reunion involves Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who fired him last season. Though he will say nothing before kickoff, deep inside, this game has to be personal for Haley.
One of the worst-kept secrets in league circles was the relationship between Haley and Pioli. The two strong personalities with strong ideas clashed. The Chiefs are reeling, and Haley has the chance to deliver a real knockout blow. It would be an upset if the Steelers' offense relented at any point Monday night.
After facing Kansas City, the Steelers will play two of their next three games against their most bitter rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. But there might not be a game on the schedule that means any more to Haley than the one Monday night.
7. Maybe he was right: While Mark Sanchez was leading the Jets to two AFC Championship Games, he made Pete Carroll's comments that the quarterback should have stayed at school for more seasoning look ridiculous.
"We don't see this decision the same," Carroll said in January 2009 when he was Sanchez's coach at USC. "Mark's going against the grain on this decision and he knows that. He knows coming out early is a tremendous challenge for a quarterback and the statistics don't back up that it will be easy the way he's going about it."
Four seasons into Sanchez's career, maybe Carroll was on to something. Sanchez never has looked more confused and lost than he did in the Jets' last game, at home against Miami. He has looked shortchanged in the developmental process. And now Sanchez must take the Jets on the road to play Carroll's Seahawks and one of the toughest defenses in the league.
Meanwhile, Carroll's quarterback is the anti-Sanchez, Wilson, the former North Carolina State and Wisconsin standout who remained in school and played all four years of his college career.
8. Jobs in the balance: There might not be two more embattled head coaches than Dallas' Garrett and Philadelphia's Andy Reid. Now, they will square off Sunday in the Coaches On The Hot Seat Bowl.
In fact, the two coaches and teams will meet twice within the next month, Sunday in Philadelphia and Dec. 2 in Dallas. Those two games could help determine whether either coach will keep his job after this season.
There's plenty at stake Sunday in one of the more significant games pitting 3-5 teams. The winner will keep playoff hopes alive; the loser will face more criticism than at any point this season.
9. Missed connection: Some stats are so hard to imagine that they almost do not seem real. Here's one of those stats: This season, one season after he caught 16 touchdown passes, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has yet to catch a touchdown pass from Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Johnson's only touchdown catch this season came against the Tennessee Titans, and Lions backup Shaun Hill threw it to him. As Detroit heads into back-to-back divisional games Sunday against Minnesota and then next Sunday against Green Bay before a Thanksgiving Day matchup versus the Houston Texans, Stafford and Johnson must make their Motown music together.
10. Unbeaten, but not favorites: If Falcons coach Mike Smith needed another motivational tactic for his team, Las Vegas has given him one. Even though the Falcons are 51-21 in the regular season since 2008 and are the NFL's lone unbeaten team, they are not considered favorites to win the Super Bowl.
ESPN's Darren Rovell reported this week that the 49ers, Patriots, Texans, Packers and Giants all have better odds than Atlanta to win the Super Bowl, according to at least one sports book in Las Vegas.
The Falcons might not be considered favorites, but any NFC team that beats them probably is going to have to do it in Atlanta. Heading into the second half of the season, the Falcons hold a one-game lead over Chicago in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Houston at Chicago -- So many similarities: QBs acquired through trade, versatile RBs, huge WRs, great defenses and Super Bowl hopes.
• Player of the week: Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson -- Payback to his former San Diego team for not rewarding or trading him sooner.
• Upset of the week: New Orleans over Atlanta -- One of these picks against the Falcons eventually is going to be right. Right?
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