Defense, running game could carry Bears
Like the weather, the assessment could soon change, but the Bears look like the NFC North's best team.
No kidding. Last week I was going to tell you, after the Lions held a Brett Favre offense to a field goal and the Bears and Vikings couldn't manage a whole lot more in their losses, that Detroit was all set to seize NFC North supremacy. Silly me.
So naturally, after Green Bay and Minnesota each fell to 0-2 and Chi-town put it to the D 38-6 on Sunday, I'm ready to anoint the Bears the best team in the division.
Sure, that's like trying to call the AL Central in August, but the Bears have the best defense and the best head coach in the North. That combo should do it. Plus rookie quarterback Kyle Orton is playing better ball right now than Favre, Daunte Culpepper and Joey Harrington.
And although they're 1-1 and tied with Detroit for the division lead, the Bears have an identity -- they're committed to the run and they play defense -- while the others are trying to find themselves.
"We're a good football team," said Bears coach Lovie Smith, who is selling his team on the fact that no one respects it. "I know nobody wants to hear that."
Actually, that's great news. Because the playoff representatives from last year, Green Bay and Minnesota, certainly aren't good, while immature (there is young, and then there is immature) Detroit doesn't seem to know what it wants to be.
The Lions have two weeks between the Bears beatdown and their next game to try and figure it out. First thing is keeping their quarterback from getting knocked out. Harrington threw five interceptions, but on at least two he was in the process of being planted by a defender. Chicago clearly found a weakness in Detroit's protection scheme and exploited it. The bad news for the Lions is their next opponent, the Bucs (2-0), play the same type of attacking defense as Chicago, Smith having come from the Tony Dungy coaching tree. And teams are going to continue bringing pressure until Detroit shows it can handle it.
"You evaluate your scheme and determine if it's sound, if it makes sense," Lions coach Steve Mariucci said in his Monday news conference. "Are we well prepared for the scheme that's presented against us? Then you look at our play selection. Then you look at the execution. We've got some time to get some things fixed, and we intend to do that."
Unfortunately, there isn't anything at this point the Vikings can do to fix the personnel mistake they made in the offseason. They grew tired of Randy Moss' personality, but there is no overstating his impact on a football team. Or on one play; or on a game. Looking back, perhaps Moss did not receive enough credit for what he meant to Minnesota amid the often well-deserved criticism. Scott Linehan is a good offensive coordinator, and Matt Birk is a very good center, but I guarantee if the most dynamic player in the NFL were still running go routes for the Vikings, they'd be in better shape today.
Chicago's defense is in its second year playing in Smith's system, and the growth shows. And it doesn't hurt that Brian Urlacher (eight games missed in 2004 due to injury) and Mike Brown (13) are back. The Bears bounced back from their opening-day loss at Washington because they were able to get back to running the football. Smith loved that Thomas Jones got 20 carries (for 139 yards) and rookie Cedric Benson 16. That's the kind of shared workload the Bears are looking for from their outside-inside tandem.
"We found out in that game that we had a quarterback," Smith said. "That Kyle can do the job."
Orton's job is to go 14 of 21 for 150 yards with a touchdown and no picks, as he did Sunday.
"What do most good QBs have?" Smith said. "Whatever it is, he's got it. His teammates love him and he's showing them that he can lead us where we want to go."
We love predictions, and we're looking for someone to hand the division over to after Week 2. The Bears are this week's NFC North favorite. By next week, it could be Green Bay or Minnesota again should they win.
"It's like we're six minutes into the first quarter," Smith said. "There's so much football left in the season. We don't know how good we are."
At least they know who they are, which is probably more than can be said for their divisional opponents at this juncture.
"If they have to describe us, I would like for them to talk about how hard and how physical we play," Smith said. "The Bears haven't been one of the teams you talk about. We've been down for a long time. When you go 5-11 and have a top pick, you're not one of the teams people talk about. That's how it goes."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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