Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010
Updated 9:20 PM
By John Mullin
Coach Lovie Smith has made a philosophical point of stressing November as the pivotal month for making a run at the playoffs. His players appear to have been listening as they handled Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles 31-26 to finish 4-0 in November and take sole possession of first place in the NFC North with an 8-3 record many outside of Halas Hall thought unlikely at this point of 2010.
Since losing three of four leading into their off week, the Bears have reeled off four wins to position themselves squarely in the middle of any playoff scenarios. In the last 50 years the Bears have reached the playoffs every season in which they have had eight wins by this point of their season.
"I think we've taken steps each week," Smith said. "Even the times that we lost, we found out something we needed to know about our football team.
"I would definitely say our arrow is pointed up. When you win four games in a row the way we have, we talk early about getting in position in October and making that run in November. That's exactly what the guys are doing."
Total team victory
The defense allowed 398 yards, second highest total this season. And Philadelphia's 26 points were the most scored this year.
But five different defensive linemen had at least a share of a sack against quarterback Michael Vick, four sacks total. The combined efforts produced the first interception of Vick this year and handed Vick his first loss as a starter this season.
"I need to take my hat off to the Chicago Bears defense," said Vick, who finished with 333 passing yards and 2 TD passes. "They did a great job with their scheme."
The defense in particular delivered turning-point stops of Vick in the first half, forcing a field goal with a Julius Peppers sack on a play from the Chicago 3 and then intercepting Vick on second-and-goal from the Chicago 4, a turnover that led to a crucial Bears touchdown.
On the interception, defensive tackle Tommie Harris deflected a Vick pass. The ball fluttered into the end zone where safety Chris Harris collected the first interception of Vick all season, two yards deep in the end zone with 2 minutes remaining in the half.
"I made a regular inside move and just got my hand up. I knew he was in an empty backfield so didn't have a lot of options and had to get the ball out quick."
For Vick, "That interception was just deflating to us as a team. It just changes the momentum of the game."
The NFL's No. 2 scoring offense at 28.4 points per game struggled to just one touchdown and four field goals into the latter stages of the fourth quarter. Vick threaded a 30-yard TD pass between three Bears to tight end Brent Celek with 1:48 to play and keep most of the 59,911 in their seats to make sure a game the Bears led since the first quarter did not get away.
Johnny Knox pulled in David Akers bounding short kickoff and the Bears went into their victory formation.
Meanwhile the offense was putting up its biggest touchdown total of 2010. Jay Cutler, matching his career high of four touchdown passes, threw for scores twice to wide receiver Earl Bennett and once to Knox in a first half that saw Cutler complete 7 of 10 passes, avoid any interceptions despite pressure that sacked him four times, and post a passer rating of 152.1.
After the Chris Harris interception and 39-yard return, coming with the Bears ahead just 14-13, the Bears were presented with the ball at their 37. It took Cutler just six plays, one on a 30-yard toss to Bennett who broke tackles to get all the way to the Philadelphia 20. Cutler then found Bennett on a short route to the right side and the game was changed for good.
"To score right before halftime, then get the ball back and go down and try to score again, that's huge," Cutler said. "That's a potential 14-point swing right there."
As if to demonstrate that it was no fluke, Cutler engineered a drive to open the second half that culminated with him firing a pass to tight end Greg Olsen for a nine-yard TD that sent the Bears up 28-13 barely 90 seconds into the second half. A 23-yard Robbie Gould field goal in the closing minutes pushed the Bears up by three scores at 31-13 and all that effectively remained was settling on a final score.
It was a day that began with good things happening as far as the Bears were concerned.
The Bears got a pregame gift from the Atlanta Falcons, who defeated Green Bay on a Matt Bryant field goal with 9 seconds remaining. The loss dropped the Packers to 7-4 and left the NFC North door unlocked for the Bears, who finish their season Jan. 2 in Green Bay in a game before which they hope to have their post-season situation secured.
Minnesota gave new coach and former Bear Leslie Frazier his first win as a head coach. In the process the Vikings dealt an NFC loss to a Washington Redskins team that has a tiebreak edge on the Bears but now is fading at 5-6. The New York Giants (8-3) got past Jacksonville to stay atop the NFC East and New Orleans (8-3), another wild-card contender of possible future interest to the Bears, escaped with a three-point win over Dallas.
A whole half
The Bears built a 21-13 lead at halftime on near-perfect play by Cutler, who completed 7 of 10 passes, 3 for touchdowns and good for a rating of 152.1 as he managed to avoid interceptions despite pressure that sacked him four times.
Cutler and the offense had previously scored no more than three touchdowns in any entire game this season, doing that three times (Dallas, Buffalo, Minnesota). They reached that point by halftime with Cutler threading precision scoring passes of 10 yards to Bennett, 20 yards to Knox and 6 yards to Bennett again just before halftime.
Vick and the Philadelphia offense proved more than capable of gaining yardage on the Bears but that was nearly all they managed. Akers gave the Eagles the game's first points with a 45-yard field goal but that was the last time the Eagles led.
Vick guided the offense 65 yards in 10 plays and gave Philadelphia its only touchdown of the first quarter with an eight-yard pass to Jeremy Maclin. Akers added a 36-yarder midway through the quarter but that was a bitter consolation prize.
The Eagles owned the ball with a third-and-goal at the Chicago 3 and left Peppers unblocked on a Vick rollout to the left. Peppers instead sacked Vick for a 14-yard loss and a fumble, forcing the Eagles to settle for Akers' kick.
As far as a statement game, "we're not concerned with that right now," Peppers said. "We'll be concerned with that when playoff time comes."
John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.