TEMPE, Ariz.—Halfway through the season and we're suddenly talking disparity, not parity in the National Football Conference Central Division.
The rampaging Bears, 31-21 winners over the Phoenix Cardinals Sunday, are threatening to pull away from the pack of purportedly improved NFC Central opponents with their 6-1 record.
The second-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4) are 2½ games behind the Bears. Detroit and Green Bay are scrambling for a wild-card berth with 3-4 ledgers. And the defending champion Minnesota Vikings are 1-6 and sinking faster than the economy.
"When you say parity, that also means that anything can happen," said strong safety Shaun Gayle, realizing the Bears have two games remaining against the Bucs, including next Sunday's game in Tampa.
"We're helping ourselves by continuing to win. But it doesn't hurt to get a little help from somebody else," said running back Neal Anderson. "We're getting a little cushion now. If we can just keep this pace going we will be OK."
Dispelling the notion that the 95-degree heat and a weekend off for a bye might disrupt their winning momentum, the Bears stormed to an early 28-0 lead in front of a Phoenix Cardinals record crowd of 71,233 at Sun Devil Stadium.
The Cardinals (2-5) pulled to within 28-14 with a determined but belated second-half effort. A 33-yard Kevin Butler field goal put the Bears up 31-14 in the fourth period before the Cardinals added a consolation score on a 40-yard pass from quarterback Timm Rosenbach to Roy Green.
"Well, it was a good first half," said Bears coach Mike Ditka, who beat the Cardinals for the first time in his nine-year head coaching career. "It was a much better football team than the score would indicate."
Anderson (74 yards on 20 carries) scored the first of his two first-half touchdowns on a 2-yard run that capped a six-play, 84-yard drive on the Bears' first possession. A 41-yard pass from Jim Harbaugh (9 for 14, 166 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception) to Anderson, a 21-yard run by Brad Muster and a 19-yard sprint by Anderson keyed the drive.
Muster gained a career-high 99 yards on 12 carries.
"Brad Muster played as good as I have seen a fullback play, ever, in my opinion," said Ditka. "He did what he had to do and he is a load. Our line did an outstanding job of blocking; we ran a lot of traps out there."
"Brad played a great game today and it was kind of funny because (rookie running back) Johnny Bailey was kidding him before the game," said Anderson. "He said, 'Man, you would be bad if you had any kind of moves.'
"But Brad is doing a great job blocking, and he can really run the ball when he is given more opportunities. That is great for the team because people are going to have to respect somebody else running the ball, too. Not just look at Neal Anderson."
Muster averaged 8.3 yards a carry and caught a pass as the Bears converted 7 of 11 third-down situations.
"I'm not the flashiest guy out there. I'm not the quickest guy. But I think I combine a lot of elements that a lot of guys don't have," said Muster. "I may not esthetically look the best, but I get the job done."
Cards rookie running back Johnny Johnson (74 yards on 16 carries) deked All-Pro linebacker Mike Singletary on a 9-yard swing pass in the first quarter. Bears second-year cornerback Donnell Woolford suffered a sprained left ankle and groin pull on the play and was carted off to the locker room. Vestee Jackson took Woolford's place.
From deep in their own territory, the Cardinals' Johnson attempted a halfback pass intended for J.T. Smith that was intercepted by rookie free safety Mark Carrier and returned 14 yards to the Cardinals' 20.
Four rushes by Anderson took the Bears to the 8 before Muster and Dennis Gentry carried the ball to the Cards' 1. On fourth down, Ditka inserted 325-pound William Perry in the backfield.
Harbaugh faked to Perry and kept on a bootleg right for the touchown and a 14-0 lead.
The Bears rolled to a 21-0 first-half lead on a 67-yard touchdown pass from Harbaugh to Ron Morris. It was Morris' longest career reception.
"It was like (the first) Green Bay game where the cornerback came up and the safety stayed on the hash mark," said Morris. "Harbaugh did a great job and saw me on the sideline and we came up with a touchdown."
The running of Muster and Anderson and a 15-yard personal foul penalty against Cardinals rookie safety Tim McDonald put the Bears in position to take a 28-0 lead. From 2 yards out, Anderson scored with 1:56 left in the half.
With the Bears in a prevent defense, the Cardinals marched 73 yards on eight plays to get on the scoreboard. Rosenbach (18 of 30, 256 yards, 2 TDs) passed 3 yards to Smith and Al Del Greco converted to make it 28-7 at intermission.
Del Greco missed a 37-yard field goal in the Cardinals' first possession of the second half. But Phoenix moved 91 yards in 11 plays on their next possession as Johnson sprinted 21 yards for a touchdown on a fourth and 1 to pull them to within 28-14.
"It was a combination of things in the second half. I think they started to get in sync offensively and the heat was starting to take its toll on us," said Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong.
The Bears chewed up 8 minutes 31 seconds on a 15-play, 49-yard drive that resulted in Butler's 33-yard field goal and a 31-14 lead midway through the fourth period.
A 40-yard pass from Rosenbach to Green with 7:16 to go in the game pulled the Cardinals to within 31-21 as Green beat Jackson on a deep post pattern.
The Cardinals caught a break when Harbaugh's flare pass intended for Muster tipped off the hands of the fullback into the arms of free safety Lonnie Young. He bobbled the interception several times before gaining control as he fell to the turf at the Bears' 35 with 6:06 left in the game.
On second down from the 35, an in-the-grasp sack by Armstrong on Rosenbach was ruled by referee Pat Hagerty.