By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - The Chicago Bears took over sole control of the NFC North after beating the Miami Dolphins 16-0 on Thursday for their third successive win.
Miami were without their two main quarterbacks, with Chad Henne and Chad Pennington both out with injuries picked up in Sunday's win over Tennessee, so third-string Tyler Thigpen was pushed into action having had little time to prepare.
The result was a Miami offense that barely threatened Chicago in the air or on the ground and the Bears led 6-0 at halftime thanks to two field goals from Robbie Gould.
Miami's injury woes increased just before halftime when key receiver Brandon Marshall went off with a hamstring injury and did not return.
Marshall had made 41 yards on three receptions prior to his injury but had been handed a 15 yard penalty after throwing the ball at Bears quarterback Jay Cutler - the pair were former team mates at Denver.
Without his main outlet and with little protection from his offensive line, Thigpen struggled after the interval and the Bears put the game beyond Miami when a two yard touchdown run from Matt Forte finished off a 13-play drive to make it 16-0.
BEHIND THE CHAINS
While the stats of the two quarterbacks were very similar - Thigpen throwing for 187 yards and Cutler 156, with both giving up one interception - those figures masked vastly differing performances.
The key was Chicago's greater efficiency on third downs. While the Bears made 10 of 18, the Dolphins were a miserable one from 11 against a miserly Chicago defense.
"Defense has been like this for ten straight games, it is nothing new for us, we are the ones offensively trying to catch up with them," Cutler told reporters.
"If we get to playing on their level then we are going to be a very good team in December," he added.
Miami's season is unlikely to go much beyond December - they trail the New England Patriots and New York Jets in the AFC East and their hopes of a wildcard are fading.
"Its disappointing because from our standpoint we really felt strongly that we could win this football game and be sitting here 6 and 4 right now and that is a completely different situation....it's disappointing."
Sparano refused to blame the lengthening injury list for his team's failings.
"Those are excuses. I am not going to use them. I don't want my team to use them. Its the National Football League - the next guy has got to step up and we didn't do that tonight," he said.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by John O'Brien/Patrick Johnston)