CHICAGO -- As measured with their words as they were merciless with their pass rush, Chicago Bears defenders tried hard after Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers to maintain an air of anonymity, to remain the league's most underrated division leader for just a little bit longer.
Guess what, guys? The word is out. Or soon will be. The Bears, especially on the defensive side, are pretty darned good.
"Yeah, I guess we're not exactly flying under everyone's consciousness anymore now, are we?" allowed left defensive end Adewale Ogunleye after Chicago's 13-3 dismantling of Carolina, a game that wasn't nearly as close as its double-digit margin. "This game probably showed a lot of people just how good we can be."
Indeed, alert the nation's air traffic controllers and the rest of the NFL. What was once little more than a blip on the radar screen might have emerged as a beast Sunday.
No matter how much they bit their tongues, Bears players finally conceded that the rest of the league might now have to chew a while on a notion that once might have been considered unthinkable and unpalatable: At 7-3 after a sixth straight win, with the second-best record in the conference and the top-rated defense in the NFL, it now might no longer matter that Chicago is the master of the league's shabbiest domain.
Having mauled a Panthers outfit that came into the game regarded by many as the NFC's best team, the Bears might have established themselves as more than just a bad punchline to all of those NFC North jokes. And they did so by turning Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme into a punching bag, sacking him eight times, forcing him into a pair of early interceptions that built a workable lead and plenty of momentum, and choking off nearly every facet of Carolina's offense, save for splendid wide receiver Steve Smith.
For yet another week, cornerback Nathan Vasher, who did not open the season as a starter, turned in the singular play of the game, picking off a horrendously underthrown Delhomme pass on Carolina's first possession and returning it 46 yards to set up a 3-yard touchdown reception by former Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
But it was Chicago's defensive front four -- which was in Delhomme's face on the first Vasher interception and buzzing around him on a second pickoff two series later, that one leading to a field goal -- that inflicted the most damage consistently. Motivated by all the attention the Panthers' front four has received, and a widely held perception that Carolina possesses the league's premier defensive line, the Bears came into the showdown game with a chip on their shoulders.
And proceeded to all but knock Delhomme's block off.
There weren't many occasions Sunday on which Delhomme was able to set his feet in the pocket. And when he did, he was wildly errant, as he can be at times. The outcome only reinforced that the Panthers can only ride Smith so far. The nearly uncoverable wideout had a franchise-record 14 receptions for 169 yards, the third game this year in which Smith had 10 or more catches. Unfortuntely, for Carolina, the rest of the offense totaled only 69 yards.
Delhomme completed 22 of 39 passes for 235 yards, but the eight sacks and two pickoffs were his undoing. Carolina's rushing attack eked out only 55 yards on 16 carries. And whether it was the lack of running room created by an overmatched offensive line, the dominance of the Chicago front seven, or a combination of both, tailback Stephen Davis (four carries for six yards) suddenly looked a step slow. For the game, the Panthers had only 238 yards (and 3.8 yards per snap) and just 13 first downs.
Forced out of their offense early on and forced into turnovers, the Panthers fell to 7-3 and into a tie with Tampa Bay for first place in the NFC South, with Atlanta only one game behind the division leaders. Carolina is 6-14 under coach John Fox in games against opponents with winning records.
"We just didn't give ourselves much of a chance today," Delhomme acknowledged.
Certainly the embattled Delhomme, whose interceptions came on plays where he was throwing off his back foot, under pressure, and delivering the football sidearm and with little velocity, had few chances because of the intense pressure wrought by the Bears. On the flip side, the much-ballyhooed Carolina front posted no sacks and Bears rookie quarterback Kyle Orton was efficient enough to keep the ball moving with short passes and a solid running game.
Despite four drops, Muhammad still had six catches for 49 yards. Fellow wide receiver Justin Gage enjoyed a career day of seven catches for 81 yards. And Thomas Jones carried 25 times for 87 of the Bears' 122 rushing yards.
"We do," said Orton, "what we have to do. With this defense, the way it's playing, if we can just get up on people early, we feel pretty good. Let this defense do it's thing. That's kind of our [philosophy]."
Philosophically and schematically, Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera called a clever game, blitzing Delhomme early and then settling more into coverage when the Panthers were relegated to a lot of max protection schemes in an effort to keep rushers off their quarterback. But it didn't seem to matter very much what Rivera dialed up, because the Bears' front was superior from the outset, and the recklessness with which the unit performed never waned.
Both inside and on the flanks, Chicago's defensive line thrashed Panthers blockers, and it didn't faze the Bears when Carolina kept in six or seven blockers. The manpower edge wasn't enough to keep the Bears from spending the afternoon in Carolina's backfield.
"I think they played a little bit for respect," Rivera admitted. "The Carolina line is very good and it deserves the credit it gets. But these guys think they're pretty good, too."
Ogunleye consistently beat standout right tackle Jordan Gross and posted three sacks. Right end Alex Brown, who entered the game with just one sack, notched two takedowns of Delhomme and whipped left tackle Travelle Wharton all day. Defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Alfonso Boone and backup end Michael Haynes each added one sack. Boone was particularly dominant inside, collapsing the Carolina pocket time and again and allowing the ends more than enough time to swoop in from the outside.
By unofficial count, Delhomme was pressured nine times, in addition to the sacks, and hit on at least seven other occasions. Of the dozen Carolina offensive possessions, half of them included at least one sack. The Panthers didn't help their own cause by using a lot of empty backfield sets and having Delhomme throw from mostly five- and seven-step drops, strategies that forced him to hold the ball.
It didn't hurt, either, that the Bears defenders had studied Delhomme's tendencies, and turned that knowledge into turnovers.
"He's kind of a one-read guy," Brown said. "If he doesn't see Smith [come open] real quick, he's going to pull the ball down and hold it. Then you can get to him and get his feet moving. And when that happens, well, you've got to like your chances, right?"
On both Vasher interceptions, Delhomme was actually throwing for Ricky Proehl, but the ball died on each occasion. Vasher, who had five interceptions as a solid nickel cornerback in his 2004 debut season, now has six for the season. He has emerged as the Bears' big-play guy in the secondary, eclipsing fellow corner Charles Tillman, who got the lion's share of publicity in the preseason.
Carolina had scored 40 points in the last two weeks off takeaways, but had none on Sunday. The Bears, after scoring their first 10 points after the Vasher interceptions, have now produced 71 points off takeaways.
Vasher acknowledged that he has "some kind of gift" for authoring game-altering plays, but was wise enough afterward to spread the credit around. He cited the fact that he had plenty of safety help over the top on Smith, who had a 48-yard reception but caught most of his 14 passes on shorter routes, and emphasized that the Bears weren't going to allow themselves to be beaten by one man.
"I've been playing football a long time," Vasher said, "and I've never been in a game where we just got beat on hitches and slants all day. That's pretty much what they do. We didn't take all that stuff away from them, but we took away the big plays and that was our goal coming into the game. I mean, you keep Steve Smith out of the end zone, hold that offense to three points, that's a pretty good day."
It marked the second straight game and the fifth game in 10 that the Bears have held an opponent without an offensive touchdown. While not many Bears were prepared to compare their defense to the stalwart unit which propelled the 1985 Bears to a Super Bowl title, one Carolina veteran insisted there are parallels.
"I've been in the league 12 years now," said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, "and it's the best defense I've seen in 12 years. They do what they want to do. They gets sacks and they get takeaways and they play smart football. They might be the closest to that Bears defense of '85 that I've seen."
For their part, Chicago's defenders would prefer to stay underground, to remain off the charts and keep sneaking up on opponents. But the Bears, who play at Tampa Bay next week, can pretty much forget about stealth now.
"I think the cat's out of the bag now," Ogunleye conceded. "Anybody who looks at this game, and the quality of the team we beat and how we beat them well, we're not going to be much of a secret anymore."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.