Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Monsters Have Returned To The Midway

Look out all you NFC playoff contenders because the Chicago Bears are for real.

In what has to be the biggest surprise of the 2005 National Football League season – the Bears sit atop the NFC North with a 7-3 record.

Despite having a rookie at quarterback (Kyle Orton) and an Arizona Cardinals castoff at tailback (Thomas Jones), Da Bears are currently the number two seed in the conference after a huge 13-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday.

Chicago head coach Lovie Smith has built this team into a contender in two short years by following a simple principle – a solid defense with a powerful running game equals a winning franchise.

There’s no flash or sparkle with the Bears. They won’t be confused with the Indianapolis Colts or the St. Louis Rams anytime soon.

What Chicago does is not pretty, but effective. They’re blue-collar – how could a team in the windy city not be? They hit hard, run hard, block hard and work hard. Lovie has instilled a hard-nosed attitude not seen since the time of Iron Mike Ditka.

The entire Smith philosophy is in every nerve and fiber of the Bears defense. His goal was to bring back the glory days when guys named Dick Butkus, Bill George and Mike Singletary roamed the field.

It’s worked. The Monsters of the Midway have returned.

Numbers don’t lie and the numbers say that Chicago has the best defense in the NFL. The Bears are ranked first in total defense (263.5 a game), first in scoring defense (11.0), second in interceptions (16) and fourth in sacks (31). They’re second against the pass (160.9) and seventh against the rush (91.2).

How dominant are these midway monsters?

The Bears have given up 20 or more points only twice this season and six times they’ve limited teams to less than 10 points.

All the ingredients are in place for this to be a special defense – a pass rushing force at defensive end (Adewale Ogunleye), a run-stuffing tackle (Tommie Harris) and arguably the best middle linebacker in the game (Brian Urlacher).

And if that wasn't enough, the secondary is playing at a very high level. Corners Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman and strong safety Mike Brown have combined for 12 interceptions.

The offense scores just enough to win and Orton will only get better as he adjusts to the NFL. He’s confident, talented and protects the football – the key to success for any rookie QB.

He does have a nice target in Muhsin Muhammad (44-523-3), but not much else after that. Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian haven’t risen to the occasion to become a legitimate number two receiver. Mark Bradley could be the answer, but an injury sidelined him. Tight end Desmond Clark shows promise, but is inconsistent.

The running game is a much different story.

Chicago has a solid offensive line filled with veteran, all-pro caliber performers. Center Olin Kreutz, guards Ruben Brown and Terrence Metcalf and tackles John Tait and Fred Miller are the strength of the offense. That is if they’re not trying to break each other’s jaws.

Their performances have paid dividends for Jones – who has rushed for 840 yards and six touchdowns, despite missing one game and part of a second due to injury.

The running game suffered a blow recently when Cedric Benson was lost for the season with a knee injury. After holding out for most of training camp, Benson was starting to find his way and would have been a nice asset down the stretch.

But the Bears may have found an answer in third tailback Adrian Peterson. The veteran backup has looked solid in the last two games replacing Benson in the rotation.

Chicago is a ball-control, possession offense. They grind on you with the run and when the opportunity presents itself – the long ball comes into play.

It’s a formula that’s been very successful in the recent past.

The last five Super Bowl champions (Ravens, Buccaneers and Patriots) had the same style of play – dominating defense coupled with an offense that featured the rush.

None of the previous winners had a great passing attack – but they all had one thing in common – each team on their Super Bowl trek led the league in scoring defense. Sound like a team we know?

Despite history being against them, (no rookie QB has ever taken a team to the big dance), the Bears defensive prowess and the lack of a dominant power in the NFC, makes them a serious contender.

With the Eagles, Rams and Falcons falling apart, the door is open in the conference. Seattle has the best record in the NFC (8-2), but struggled to beat San Francisco last week. By no means are they a lock.

The NFC East and South will be a battle until the very end and that leaves the Bears in perfect position to claim a first-round bye.

But the schedule for Chicago is not a cakewalk. The Bears have four of their final six games on the road - Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Minnesota - along with the Falcons and Packers at home.

If the Bears can clinch home field it could be sorrowful times for the rest of the NFC. Who wants to have to travel to Chicago for a playoff game in January?

It’s been a special season for the Bears and it may keep getting better and better.

The Monsters of the Midway are back – and the rest of the NFC is starting to take notice.

No comments: