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The game plan was simple and one the Bears had talked about all week: Jump out on the vulnerable Detroit Lions early and the Lions would shut down, as a lot of one-win teams would do at this time of a lost season.
The Bears did exactly what they wanted to do in virtually every respect Sunday, taking another step toward assorted playoff goals with a 24-0 beating of the Lions that guaranteed the Bears a home game to start the postseason.
"We're getting better as the season winds down, and we're getting ready for the playoffs," said defensive tackle Ted Washington.
The win also gave them a sweep of the Lions (1-14) for the first time since 1988, which, along with sweeps of the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, established them as a force again in the NFC Central Division in a style reminiscent of the Mike Ditka era.
"If you give a team like this life when it has no life, then you're in for a dogfight because they've got some good players," said left tackle Blake Brockermeyer. "Obviously the better team won today, but we kind of snuck one the first time we played. We did everything we wanted to do this time, and everything worked out beautifully."
The win assured the Bears (12-3) a home game to start the playoffs, either as a wild card on the first weekend should they lose and the Green Bay Packers win Sunday, or as a division champion with a first-round bye. A Bears victory and a Rams loss to the Falcons in St. Louis would give the Bears the home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Sunday's outcome gave the Bears 12 wins for only the sixth time in their history. If they close with a home win over Jacksonville, their 13 wins will tie the total of the 1934 Bears and rank behind only the 1985 (15 wins) and 1986 (14) teams for most in franchise history.
The Bears indeed gave indications they're getting better in several key areas as they approach their first postseason since 1994. They posted their second shutout of the season, matching the 24-0 score against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 21, and in the process held the third opponent of their last five without a touchdown. They collected six sacks for the second straight game along with three interceptions and four forced fumbles, two of which they recovered.
Offensively they showed some much-needed big-play capability and scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, their first first-quarter touchdowns in 22 games. Offensive coordinator John Shoop took quarterback Jim Miller's arm out of its scabbard and turned it loose on the Lions early. Miller threw for 140 yards in the first 10 minutes Sunday, surpassing his passing total in four of the previous five games.
Seven of Miller's 10 completions in the first half went for at least 12 yards, and five were for 20 or longer. Seven different players turned in plays of 11 yards or longer, including cornerback Walt Harris, who returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown to finish the scoring in the fourth quarter.
"We came out strong and did what needed to be done," said Miller, who completed 17-of-30 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns. "We sputtered a couple of times--we had some new players in there, so we need to get some things rectified--but overall I think everybody's pretty happy with it."
One of the new players was former Northwestern star wide receiver D'Wayne Bates. With Dez White inactive because of a strained hamstring suffered Friday, Bates caught a 28-yard pass on the game's second play. He then made a diving grab in the end zone for a 28-yard TD to finish the opening possession of 74 yards and double his reception total for the season.
Starting from the Bears' 20 on the next possession, Miller directed the offense on an 80-yard drive that began with completions of 12 and 44 yards to wide receiver Marty Booker, who totaled 115 yards on nine receptions, giving him 94 on the season and the Bears' single-season receiving record. Miller then finished with a 20-yard scoring dart to rookie David Terrell, who beat safety Kurt Schulz in the back of the end zone to put the Bears up 14-0 with just under five minutes left in the first quarter. They extended the lead to 17-0 midway through the second quarter with a 38-yard Paul Edinger field goal that finished a 63-yard drive.
Detroit reached midfield or got into Bears territory on each of its first five possessions but netted no points. The Lions' best scoring opportunities in the second half reached the Bears' 20 and 37, both ending in interceptions. Safety Mike Brown picked off his team-leading fifth interception of the season, grabbing an overthrown halfback pass at the back of the end zone in the third quarter.
Linebacker Warrick Holdman ended Detroit's first possession of the fourth quarter with his first interception of the season. Harris' touchdown return later in the quarter gave the Bears three interceptions in four possessions and the kind of team finish they wanted.
"You see a lot of teams who go into a season, start off good but then it becomes, `What happened?'" said cornerback R.W. McQuarters. "We don't want to be viewed that way. It's bad enough that no one still really believes in us, so we have to go out and play every game like it's our last game and it's a one-game season."