Bears go from disastrous to dangerous
The cynics were a little wrong about the Bears' character and coaching.
CHICAGO -- Don't tell Brian Urlacher that his defense is good at causing turnovers.
"Takeaways," he interrupts.
That's not just meathead semantics. There is a significant difference.
The Bears believe they are the aggressor week in and week out, even against a mistake-prone team like the Minnesota Vikings, and it's clear that when they play the role of conference bully, they're very tough to beat.
Yes, Chicago has gotten the majority of its wins by beating a host of really bad teams, but on Sunday, the Bears improved to 6-3 by beating a mediocre, but talented, Vikings team 27-13.
Hey, it all counts the same, right?
"We're in the NFL, all the wins are pretty much the same," said nickelback D.J. Moore, who got his fourth interception of the season. "When you win, you win."
Chicago, yes Chicago, is now tied for first place in the NFC North with Green Bay, which was idle this week. The Bears, yes the Bears, are undefeated in their division and have one of the best records in the NFC.
"We had to win and we did," Urlacher said.
It's not just smoke and mirrors or feeding off the carrion of the league. The Bears could actually be getting better as the second half begins.
Make no mistake, the imploding Vikings didn't just lose this game, the Bears won it, and that's why fans can feel a little better about their playoff chances for a few days at least.
A 1-3 slog before the bye week left fans with a familiar case of the Bears Blues, but this win certainly had the locker room upbeat, as all three phases of the game dominated their counterparts. There were very few negatives Sunday.
"It feels good, of course," Lovie Smith said. "Our next goal is to win the division and that's what it's all about."
Hear that, hokey-pokey fans?
It seems so long ago that a Bears win felt this good. Week 3, I suppose, when Chicago took advantage of a sloppy Packers team and won off a late turnover, I mean takeaway.
Does this win top it all?
"We were 3-0, we were pretty excited then," Urlacher said. "We know what we are and we know what we can be. We've just got to get there and keep getting better every week. We've got confidence."
Confidence can sometimes be confused for delusion at Halas Hall, but I'm starting to think the cynics among us were a little wrong about this team's character and the coaches' abilities to get the best out of their players.
Blessed with good field position much of the game, thanks to Devin Hester's throwback 147 return yards, the woeful offense looked fairly competent, with Mike Martz finding that elusive play-calling balance, the offensive line keeping Jay Cutler upright and Cutler playing under control.
The key was converting third downs, the Bears' bugaboo earlier in the season.
Chicago was 11-for-19 on third down.
"Offensively, we are getting ripped about too much pass and run," Smith said. "It's hard to get anything going when you're not converting third downs. We are converting now offensively on third downs, which was big."
Cutler completed 22 of 35 passes for 237 yards, throwing three touchdowns and two picks, one of which was tipped by Johnny Knox, while the other was a clean pick in the end zone. The line gave up only one sack and Cutler also peeled off a 25-yard run.
The defense held Adrian Peterson to 51 yards and Brett Favre to 170 yards, and forced one fumble, and caused, or was gifted, three interceptions by the Gunslinger, and held Minnesota to a 1-for-9 performance on third down.
You don't think the Packers were a little impressed?
It's too early to look to the season-ending game at Green Bay as the decider, but it feels right, doesn't it? I could see both teams going 4-2 down the stretch, or maybe Chicago going 3-3 with a chance to win the NFC North via the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Green Bay has to play at Atlanta and New England and plays host to the Giants.
The Bears host the Eagles, Jets and New England.
A wild-card berth is still in play, amazingly enough.
"It is definitely a race, and we're going to make it a hard one for Green Bay," said Lance Briggs, who got a crucial interception. The locker room was self-assured without being cocky, and I could sense a confidence growing, with offensive players praising the defense, defensive players complimenting the offense and everyone offering hosannas to Hester.
"He's a bad man," Urlacher said in amazement.
Smith and Martz have endured their share of criticism from fans, but Smith's decision to go with Hester at kick returner for the first time this season gave his credibility an even bigger boost among the team. Talent respects talent, and there isn't a soul in the locker room who doesn't respect Hester's playmaking ability. In the third quarter, Hester had a 68-yard kick return, which turned into a field goal, and a 42-yard punt return, which ended in Cutler's red zone pick.
Hester also caught a 19-yard touchdown pass on a quick slant. He dove into the end zone for the score, getting more air than Derrick Rose.
"He's THE best returner in football," said defensive end Israel Idonije, who tipped Moore's interception.
Cutler's highs and lows have defined his tenure in Chicago, but in playing an even-keeled game, taking chances and taking off when no one was open, he gives an instant legitimacy to the offense. Sure he threw a typical red zone pick, but that was a blip.
"I've got to be more aware down there and just take the field goal," Cutler said.
"We've always believed in Jay," center Olin Kreutz said. "We've been saying all year that if we get better and better and play our best ball a little later in the year, with our defense and special teams, we'll be where we want to be."
Yes, the worst 5-3 team in football looks pretty dangerous at 6-3.
Yes, I think one win over a losing team in disarray made the Bears an instant contender.
With a short week, a win over the Dolphins on Thursday could put the Bears one win up on Green Bay as the Packers head to Minnesota.
"Seven and three is right around the corner," Moore said.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.