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"The first-place, division-leading Bears . . . "
It's a phrase that hasn't been uttered often in Chicago over the last decade. But after the Bears' 24-0 dismantling of the Cincinnati Bengals and the Minnesota Vikings' win over Green Bay on Sunday, it works.
The Bears (4-1) won a fourth straight game for the first time since a four-game winning streak put them at 6-2 in 1995. The result, which pits them against NFC West-leading San Francisco (4-1) next Sunday, has raised expectations to epic levels.
"Right now we're 4-1," rookie receiver David Terrell declared simply. "We don't want to lose any more games."
They accomplished Sunday's victory with their most dominant combination of offense and defense this season, gaining 435 yards of total offense and holding Corey Dillon & Co. to 35 rushing yards.
The domination, however, was more than the Bears breaking loose running back Anthony Thomas for a team rookie-record 188 yards in 22 carries, or Terrell stepping in after a knee injury to Marcus Robinson to catch seven passes for 91 yards. It was more than the job done on Dillon.
It was the mind-set.
"Guys on this team believe we can dominate people," said quarterback Jim Miller, whose 23-for-30 passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns was overshadowed by the rookies' play. "It's a whole new frame of mind. It starts during pregame when we're in [the locker room] to walking out there . . . and then getting on the field. It never ends."
Coach Dick Jauron said he was surprised by the score, that he'd expected a close game. His players did not. His Bears are no longer looking to win close games in fourth quarters by avoiding mistakes. They are coming into opponents' stadiums looking to bury teams.
The Bears recorded their first shutout since beating Atlanta 6-0 on Oct. 3, 1993, and held Dillon to 30 yards in 16 carries not by concocting exotic schemes and blitzes, but by making minor adjustments. Significantly, perhaps, they simply believed they didn't need to do anything special, just play their game and that would be good enough. In recent seasons, it would not have been enough, and they knew it.
"It's about us," said defensive tackle Ted Washington. "We need to be where we need to be for whatever front we have. I don't think anybody's going to run on us."
Before every game, the offensive starters spend a few moments together on the field after introductions, huddling and getting a last-minute thought from tackle James Williams, the acknowledged philosopher king of the offense. Sunday's meeting went a little longer because Williams to make this point clear:
"We came into a place [Paul Brown Stadium] called `the Jungle' and we didn't want to leave as losers," Williams said. "We wanted to put some points on the board, control the tempo of the game and never let them get started."
While the defense was holding the Bengals without a first down on four of their first six possessions, the offense shook off a Marty Booker fumble at the Cincinnati 3 to score first on a Paul Edinger field goal with 4 minutes 29 seconds left in the first quarter.
An interception by cornerback R.W. McQuarters on the Bengals' next possession was returned 43 yards to near midfield. A 46-yard burst by Thomas off right guard put the ball at the Cincinnati 1. Miller threw to tight end Fred Baxter for the score and a 10-0 lead at halftime.
Miller found Terrell for 41 yards on the Bears' second possession of the second half, then had Booker matched up one-on-one with the middle linebacker, a mismatch that ended with a 13-yard scoring pass to put the Bears up 17-0.
Thomas then took whatever life remained in the Bengals when he circled left end behind blocks by Baxter, tackle Blake Brockermeyer and guard Rex Tucker and breezed 23 yards into the Cincinnati end zone to put the Bears up 24-0.
"It was like an option that can go to either side depending on the way the defense lines up," Tucker said. "There are different ways you can block it, and in this case I can go around and seal the deal. I pulled and got around the edge and as soon as I hit the strong safety, I saw `A Train' buzz by and I thought, `Man, that's a touchdown.' He was there. It was awesome."
The Bears do not leave home again until their Nov. 18 game at Tampa. They have San Francisco and Cleveland next, and then Green Bay. They are now among the top teams in the NFC after nearly one-third of the season. There is a sense of mission evident and growing with every win.
"It's up to us how good we want to be," Miller said. "I think guys sense we can be something very special."