- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- It was vintage Mike Vick. It was new and improved Mike Vick.
It was early in the first quarter Sunday on the goat track that is Soldier Field. Third-and-long and Vick was on the move, throwing in a spin move and a cutback as Henry Melton and Julius Peppers provided pressure and Vick continued to look for a receiver.
Vick got the oohs, he got the aahs, but he didn't get the first down. Vick was stopped for a 6-yard gain and a three-and-out.
Just like that, the Bears looked like Vick-beaters.
"It was a pretty pointless spin move if you look at it, because he already cut back and then he spun to make it look good," Bears nickelback D.J. Moore said. "Actually it did look pretty good. I've got to give him some."
Good-looking spin moves don't win football games in late November. Good defenses do.
And the new and improved Vick couldn't beat the old and improved Bears defense.
That simple spin move to nowhere was a snippet, a moment, in the Bears' season-defining 31-26 win over Philadelphia.
The Bears' defense, inarguably ranked among the best in football even before the game, is as impressive as any in the NFL now. And the Bears weren't hypnotized by Vick's heroics on tape or in person. Where some saw magic, the Bears saw mirrors and sleight-of-hand. You don't hold Vick down, Peppers told me, you contain him.
"He's electric, he does those kinds of things," Peppers said. "When he starts shaking and baking, you gotta keep running to the ball. Everybody's got to keep coming because you can't let him get in the open field. I thought we did a pretty good job of that today, keeping him in the pocket and not letting him get in the open field when guys have to make one-on-one tackles."
Vick's flying act was going to mesmerize Chicago. But the Bears grounded the show. The Eagles were flying high but the Bears' goal was to keep them grounded. No big plays.
"That was the goal all week," said safety Chris Harris, who made the biggest play of the game, an end zone pick in the second quarter. "Watching film they probably have the fastest bunch of receivers in the game and the goal was not to let them get behind us and give up any big plays, and make them grind it out. We felt if we make them grind it out, we'd get the victory."
Are you convinced now? Do you still hate Lovie Smith and his defense? All that contract extension talk doesn't sound so foolish now, does it?
The Cover 2, the Lovie 2, is back in style. And the Bears are like the "Mad Men" of the NFL, retro cool, oozing with confidence and fun to watch again.
With five weeks to go, you have to start talking about the Bears as Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. They still have a tough schedule left, but as the defense proved Sunday, they set the tone, not the other way around.
"I think it's a statement for the team," Lance Briggs said. "Every week is a statement, I don't know if we're not given enough credit or whatever it is, but the character of the team week in and week out has been great."
At 8-3, the Bears are a game up on the Packers, who lost to Atlanta earlier in the day. And since they already beat Green Bay, they own the tiebreaker right now.
"I guess we should say thank you to the Atlanta Falcons," Briggs said. "Now we need you to lose a few."
This was the game we've been waiting for, the challenge the Bears needed, and now we understand this isn't a dream. The Bears really are a very good team, despite their handicaps, and the defense is as good, maybe better, than the 2006 Super Bowl team.
Briggs said it's too early to talk Monsters of the Midway or any comparisons, but that defense didn't have Peppers. It had more young legs, but this defense has more experience. I'll take experience any day.
A lot of experts picked the Eagles, including the doofus typing right now. Call the Bears lucky, fluky, whatever, the Bears don't care.
"It's hard to say if my confidence is getting higher," Briggs said. "I guess you can say that, but our confidence level is high week in and week out. We just don't believe there's a team that can beat us."
When told the TV pregame shows picked unanimously against the Bears, Brian Urlacher had a message for them.
"I could give a [expletive], to tell you the truth, about that," he said.
Moore is a little younger. He still gives an expletive.
"It did feel good," Moore said. "Everybody looks at you like 'You're not good, you're not good, you're not good, you're not good.' We go from nobody pick us ever to OK, a couple people pick us. Now it's like who you going to pick? I wouldn't pick against us."
With defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli pumping them up ("I think he wakes up coaching us," Israel Idonije said), the Bears are brimming with confidence and energy and it's starting to look scary.
Take this game. All the talk was about the defense getting exposed by Vick and his speedy skill players. But all the noise about adjusting to Vick's style was just that.
"We play our defense, we play what we play," Peppers said. "We don't adjust to what they do. We major in ourselves. That's how it's been all year. We play our Cover 2, we rush the quarterback, we throw a blitz in there every now and then, and for the most part, that's it."
Peppers is new around here. He wasn't around for the nadir of Smith's defense, when it looked like the defensive foundation was as well-worn as the grass at Soldier Field. Peppers loves it.
"The thing that's good is we don't do a lot of 'things,'" he said, accentuating the last word. "And that eliminates some of the mistakes. We're not out there trying to run 100 different defenses and getting confused on the assignments. We do what we do and we do it well. You know, that's really all you need."
Vick and the Eagles weren't exactly shackled. He threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns. He ran nine times for 44 yards.
The Eagles averaged 4.8 yards per carry and garnered 24 first downs. Eagles coach Andy Reid's insistence on settling for field goals late seemingly made him the 12th member of the Bears' defense.
But there was a reason he kept sending David Akers out there.
The bend-but-don't-break Bears forced four fumbles (recovering none) and held Philadelphia to 4-for-13 on third down and 1-for-5 in the red zone with goal-to-go, including Harris' interception late in the second quarter, the most important play of the game.
With the Bears nursing a 14-13 lead, and the Eagles methodically moving down the field behind Vick, Harris was responsible for the middle of the field on second-and-goal from the 4-yard line with 2 minutes to play in the half. Tommie Harris tipped Vick's pass intended for a quick slant to Jeremy Maclin in front of Harris. The ball just floated over Urlacher's outstretched paws and into Harris' waiting hands.
Harris returned it 39 yards to the Bears' 37. Cutler marched the Bears down the field in six plays, culminating in a 6-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett, giving the Bears a 21-13 lead.
"I was talking to myself saying, 'Chris, this ball is about to get tipped, and you're going to get one.' It doesn't always happen that way, but it did that time," Harris said.
No, it doesn't always happen that way, but this season, it sure seems like it does.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
7hEric D. Williams