Lovie Smith didn't make small talk about Sunday's meeting with the Minnesota Vikings when he called it the biggest game in these parts in some time.
He was all-in, and you got the sense Smith was putting the future of a make-or-break season on a Week 10 meeting against the two-time division champions, even if the battered Vikings came limping into Soldier Field. So don't try to tell him that his team's 27-13 destruction of the Vikings was another victory over a ho-hum team, the kind that's seemingly filled the Bears' schedule for two months.
The Bears are 6-3 and at this point it doesn't matter who the wins have come against. They're tied for the second-best record in the NFC behind only Atlanta (7-2) and they've edged back into first place in the NFC North by virtue of the fact they defeated the Green Bay Packers (6-3). It's setting up to be a seven-week race.
The defense throttled Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson, picking off Favre three times and limiting Peterson to a season-low 51 yards rushing on 17 carries. Special teams, which got a surprise with Devin Hester fielding kickoffs again, helped the offense enjoy an average starting field position of the Bears' 44-yard line. Hester had a 68-yard kickoff return and a 42-yard punt return. Maverick play caller Mike Martz remained balanced for the second week in a row, calling 39 passes vs. 35 runs in keeping Minnesota off-balance. The Bears only gained 106 yards on 33 handoffs, but good things happen when you can commit to the run like that.
"It feels good," Smith said. "Our next goal is to win the division. That's what it's all about. This is setting us up."
The team is now 3-0 in the division with all three victories coming at Soldier Field. It faces a short week with a game Thursday at Miami (5-4) where the Dolphins will start third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen after Chad Pennington and Chad Henne suffered serious injuries Sunday. The mid-week trip to San Francisco last season was an utter disaster. But this team likes to tell you it is gaining momentum after seeing its season flash before its eyes in the fourth quarter last week against Buffalo.
The Bears, who converted 11 of 19 third downs while limiting the Vikings to 1 of 9, controlled play for nearly the entire game. Jay Cutler (22 of 35, 237 yards) connected with Greg Olsen and Hester for touchdown passes in the second quarter as the Bears led 14-10 at halftime, the only blemish blown coverage between cornerback Tim Jennings and safety Chris Harris that allowed Percy Harvin to score a 53-yard touchdown.
The Vikings got only a 33-yard field goal from Ryan Longwell in the second half and that came after a 42-yard pass interference penalty on Danieal Manning. The Vikings (3-6) were listless and the speculation surrounding embattled coach Brad Childress will only increase. It's the kind of mess the Bears avoided by pulling out of the funk they were in after home losses to Seattle and Washington.
Gould added two field goals in the third quarter and after Cutler was intercepted in the end zone by Husian Abdullah the offense delivered the knockout blow when Cutler hit tight end Kellen Davis wide open for a 19-yard touchdown on a third-and-one play fake.
Lance Briggs and Chris Harris both intercepted Favre in the closing minutes. In what is likely his final game at Soldier Field, he was 18 of 31 for 170 yards and the one touchdown. He wasn't sacked but the Bears flustered him and the defensive backs dominated a short-handed wide receiver corps. Smith ran his record to 8-3 as head coach of the Bears vs. Favre.
All eyes will be on the Bears' offense and the improvements it can make. Can they be more effective running the ball? Will the line hold up? Can Martz really remain balanced? But special teams is making plays on a weekly basis and the defense has been what the Bears expected.
"We had a lot of guys that have played at the highest level," Smith said. "So we thought we would be pretty good, but they're showing it each week. They're playing dominating ball at times. It's early in the game, but I like where the defense is right now and I like where I think we'll be at the end of the season."
The defense is setting lofty goals, too. Players told coaches they expected seven takeaways. They wound up three short.
"They're going to get on us about it," Manning said.
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