The Bears ran off the Raymond James Stadium field Sunday like they owned the place, their smiles large and their confidence even more difficult to quantify.
Not even Matt Bryant's 29-yard missed field-goal attempt with 2 minutes 47 seconds remaining seemed to surprise or faze them, the cherry to top of the sundae of a hard-fought 13-10 victory.
This team is to the point where it not only expects to make plays, it expects other teams not to.
"We know we're going to get it done," quarterback Kyle Orton said. "That missed field goal even it seems like when you're a good football team and you keep pressing on people, you press them into mistakes. That's what we're doing. We're wearing on people."
Ho. And hum.
The Bears' seven-game winning streak, the franchise's first since 1986, now includes three road victories and back-to-back triumphs over elite NFC teams. They may continue to open eyes and minds around the league, but forgive the Bears if they're more focused than freaking out.
They expected this.
"We're a good football team," safety Mike Brown said. "We've been saying that since training camp."
In fact, the Bears are in danger of having their "no respect" angle expire, such has been the stinginess of its top-ranked defense that held a seventh opponent to 10 points or fewer and carried the load on a day when the offense managed just 239 yards.
The defense started with Alex Brown forcing a fumble that led to a one-play, 1-yard scoring drive and ended with Adewale Ogunleye sacking Chris Simms as the final seconds ticked away.
In between was one blemishthe Bears' first allowed touchdown in 36 possessions over 11 quartersbut enough big plays to keep alive comparisons to the Super Bowl-era Bears of which this team wants no part.
"To me, that's the greatest team of all time, so you can't compare us," Mike Brown said. "We're just regular old guys who come to work. We love playing defense, especially in this system. We have a belief in our group as a whole. We have high expectations. And that's it."
Those expectations were met early when Alex Browndominant all gamesacked Simms on Tampa Bay's third play from scrimmage, forcing a fumble that Tommie Harris recovered at the 1-yard line before many in the crowd of 65,506 had found their seats.
One play later, Orton found tight end John Gilmore wide open in the corner of the end zone off play-action on a play added to the playbook just last week. The reception marked Gilmore's first career touchdown.
"That was the easiest play all day," said Orton, who called Tampa Bay's defense the toughest he has faced this season. "We got the exact look that we wanted and executed."
Bryant's 27-yard field goal made it 7-3 with 2:12 left in the first. Tampa Bay's scoring drive picked up steam when Joey Galloway, huge with seven catches for 138 yards, broke free for a 39-yard gain.
But the Bears added a 25-yard field goal by Robbie Gould with 17 seconds left before halftime on a drive in which Muhsin Muhammad caught a 13-yard pass and Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly got whistled for a questionable penalty.
Gould kicked a 36-yard field goal on the Bears' second possession of the second half to make it 13-3. The score was set up when the Bears called a screen pass on a Tampa Bay blitz and Thomas Jones gained 41 yards, complete with center Olin Kreutz blocking safety Dexter Jackson well downfield.
"A great play called at the right time," said Jones, who rushed for 72 yards. "Kyle did a great job of getting it between a couple of guys. I just tried to concentrate and make sure I caught it because I knew if I did, there was nobody behind me."
Mike Alstott's 2-yard touchdown run snapped the defense's no-touchdown streak and made it 13-10 with seven minutes remaining.
Simms then found Galloway for gains of 30 and 16 yards on Tampa Bay's next possession before Mike Brown's pressure forced Simms to hurry a throw on third down.
Enter Bryant. Enter luck.
Then again, luck often is a byproduct of success. And a defensive unit that is on pace to allow a franchise-record-low 175 points is experiencing a lot of success.
Alex Brown finished with two sacks, four deflected passes, his forced fumble and pressure that caused an intentional-grounding penalty. Ogunleye added two sacks.
"How far can it carry us?" coach Lovie Smith repeated when asked about his defense. "Hopefully all the way. If you don't let a team score, you have a heck of a chance of winning. I know that's simple, but that's how it is. We play good defense, we run the ball and try not to make a lot of mistakes. That's a pretty good formula for success."
With Minnesota winning four straight, the Bears need to keep experiencing success. They expect it.
"I've never been part of this kind of ride," Kreutz said. "But the mind-set is going to remain one game at a time. We won't get ahead of ourselves. We know we got here by working and keeping a chip on our shoulders. And we're going to keep working."
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