Strong defense, weak schedule make Bears look like NFC's best

ON THE NFL

October 09, 2006|By KEN MURRAY

It never hurts to have a strong defense in a weak division in the lesser conference.

Like the Chicago Bears do.

Monsters of the Midway, they aren't. At least not yet. But they're beginning to make a strong case that they're the best team in the NFC, if not the entire NFL.

They have superior defense, a hot quarterback, and, as these things usually work out, a very convenient schedule.

Last week, they thrashed the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, 37-6, in Chicago. Yesterday, they crushed the overmatched Buffalo Bills, 40-7. They are 5-0, travel to Arizona to play the Cardinals on Oct. 16 on Monday Night Football and draw a Week 7 bye.

As it shakes out, the Bears should be 8-0 when they launch the toughest part of their schedule beginning in Week 10, when they play consecutive games at the Meadowlands against the New York Giants and Jets, and follow that up with a visit to the New England Patriots.

At worst, the Bears will lose two of those games. And that's not likely. But what probably comes out of their tepid NFC North schedule is home-field advantage in the playoffs. It didn't matter last year, when the Bears lost to the Carolina Panthers, 29-21, in a divisional playoff game.

This year, it probably will.

Why? Because third-year coach Lovie Smith has put together a terrific defense, starting with tackle Tommie Harris (five sacks) and linebacker Brian Urlacher in the middle. The Bears are plus-10 in turnovers (always an indicator of playoff worthiness) and have allowed just two offensive touchdowns this season, one in garbage time yesterday.

Last year, winning was new to these Bears. This year, it's not.

This year, they're not relying on a rookie quarterback like last year, either. Rex Grossman, injury-prone in his first three NFL seasons, has blossomed in his fourth. Counting yesterday's rout, he's completing 61.2 percent of his throws and averaging 8.18 yards per pass attempt, with 10 touchdown passes and three interceptions.

This is a team that, come January, will have a lot to say about which team represents the NFC in the Super Bowl. By then, they could be monsters.

NFC East lowdown

Forget Terrell Owens and LaVar Arrington. Week 5 wasn't about them, despite the self-importance both placed on their roles. In Philadelphia and East Rutherford, N.J., yesterday was about the grinding NFC East race.

Arrington, the one-time Washington Redskins linebacker who signed with the New York Giants this offseason, was hard to find in the Giants' 19-3 victory over his former team unless the TV cameras caught him before or after a play. Because he didn't buy into coach Joe Gibbs' system the past two years, he couldn't stay in Washington any longer.

Arrington has not been Washington's loss any more than New York's gain. Neither the Giants nor the Redskins appear to be playoff-caliber, although funny things can happen in this division.

In Philadelphia, Owens lived down to his churlish reputation by staring down quarterback Drew Bledsoe on the field over blown opportunities, perceived and real. His three catches hardly moved the revenge meter as the Eagles outlasted the Cowboys, 38-24.

The NFC East title should come down to a Christmas Day meeting in Dallas between the Cowboys and Eagles. They are clearly the two best teams in the division. That's what yesterday was about, not selfish individuals.

Harrington or Culpepper?

The Miami Dolphins will be tempted to make Joey Harrington their starting quarterback this week and keep Daunte Culpepper on the bench. At least on the surface, that would appear to be a mistake.

Harrington played well against the Patriots in his first start for the Dolphins. He was more mobile than Culpepper, made decisions more quickly and moved the offense with more ease.

He got Miami into the end zone only once, though, and his two interceptions were costly in a 20-10 loss. That's the reputation he built through four years in Detroit, where he was 18-37 as the Lions' starter.

Culpepper, traded to Miami after seven years with the Minnesota Vikings, has seemed lost in his new offense. But he is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, and his track record says he can be a winner.

Dolphins coach Nick Saban will have an interesting decision to make.

Leinart's debut not enough

It will take more than a quarterback change to get the Cardinals over the proverbial hump. Replacing Kurt Warner with rookie Matt Leinart was the right call for coach Dennis Green.

But even though Leinart's debut as a starter held great promise - he threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns and got the Cardinals in position for a tying field-goal attempt - they still lost at home to the Kansas City Chiefs, 23-20, and a quarterback named Damon Huard.

Not a good sign.

Green brought in skill players such as Leinart, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Edgerrin James. But he hasn't upgraded the offensive line in three years, and that oversight will prevent the Cardinals (1-4) from achieving a breakthrough anytime soon.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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