The opportunistic Chicago Bears defense will face its toughest test in weeks when AFC heavyweight Houston invades the Windy City.
The Texans, who are the top dogs in the AFC, will visit a Bears team which leads the NFL with a mind-blowing plus-16 turnover ratio and will be aiming to win seven straight games for the first time since opening the 2006 season at 7-0.
Houston, on the other hand, will be shooting for the first 8-1 start in team history and a 4-0 mark away from South Texas.
Chicago also leads the NFL with a plus-116 point differential (236 points scored, 120 points allowed) and Houston is second with a plus-100 mark (237, 137).
The Bears D is loaded with playmakers and has seven interception returns for touchdowns already, the most in NFL history through eight games. Cornerback Charles Tillman, a leading contender for NFC Defensive Player of the Year, forced four fumbles last week in a 51-20 win at Tennessee and leads the league with seven forced fumbles on the year. He is also tied for the league lead with teammate Lance Briggs with two interception return for TDs.
"We like where we are right now," said Chicago head coach Lovie Smith. "I know this defense is doing some things that no other defense has done that I've been a part of. It's special what we have going at the halfway point."
Houston has its own Defensive Player of the Year candidate in J.J. Watt, who leads the NFL with 10 1/2 sacks and is the only player in the league with at least 10 sacks and 10 passes defensed.
Last Sunday Brandon Marshall hauled in nine passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns and the Bears defense forced five turnovers in Nashville.
Tillman had nine tackles to go along with his four forced fumbles and Matt Forte rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown. Jay Cutler was 19-for-26 through the air for 229 yards and three touchdowns for the 7-1 Bears, who haven't lost since a Week 2 setback in Green Bay. Brian Urlacher also returned an interception for a touchdown in the win.
"The way they're (the defense) stopping the ball, creating turnovers -- picks and fumbles -- is great. It starts with the front four. They put so much pressure on the quarterback," Cutler said.
Houston also won again last Sunday when Matt Schaub threw for 268 yards and a pair of scores as the Texans continued the best start in franchise history with a 21-9 triumph over the Buffalo Bills at Reliant Stadium.
Schaub finished 19-of-27 passing without an interception and Arian Foster carried the ball 24 times for 111 yards and a touchdown for the Texans. Andre Johnson hauled in eight passes for 118 yards, while Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham each added a touchdown grab in the victory.
"We did a lot of things that are not good enough for us to win consistently but yet we found a way to survive," Houston coach Gary Kubiak admitted. "We have a lot of things we have to fix."
The Texans have never lost to the Bears in their short history, compiling a 2-0 mark. In its only prior visit to the Second City, Houston won 24-5 back on Dec. 19, 2004.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
As good as the Bears defense has been, some observers still aren't sold on Chicago and the Texans do seem like the more balanced team as well as the club better equipped to make a strong run to the Super Bowl.
The Bears' opportunistic defense almost has to slow done from a statistical standpoint and the team's first half schedule was very weak. Only one of Chicago's victories so far has come against a team with a winning record. Conversely Sunday's game begins a stretch in which the Bears will play seven of eight against opponents currently at .500 or above.
"I don't want the guys to start thinking, 'Hey, let's hold on, something bad's going to happen,'" Smith said. "We're a good football team. We're excited about playing the Texans. I see our team getting better and better. We haven't peaked yet."
Chicago currently leads the NFL with 28 forced turnovers, is second in the league in scoring defense at 15.0 points per game and third with 25 sacks.
"(The Bears) are very well-built in what they do and they've been together for a long time," Kubiak said. "What they're doing speaks for itself. We have a serious task ahead of us."
Things might get a tad easier if Tillman is sidelined. The veteran cornerback and his wife are expecting and she could go into labor on Sunday.
With or without Tillman, the Texans offense is certainly the best and most balanced bunch the Bears have seen since Green Bay. With Schaub at the controls Houston has committed an NFL-low six turnovers, including just one lost fumble, and can beat you through the air or on the ground.
The Texans have kept Schaub clean, allowing just 10 sacks, and amass 138.0 yards per game on the ground. Foster is fifth in the NFL with 770 rushing yards and tops with 11 touchdowns.
"It's kind of a strength against a strength," Kubiak said when talking about his team's offense and Chicago's defense. "Hopefully we can hold up our end of the bargain."
Houston does seem to have a significant edge with its defense against a one-dimensional Bears offense. Watt and the Texans have been giving up just 286.1 yards per game and 17.1 points, and have not allowed a rushing TD all season.
The Bears, meanwhile are 25th in total offense with 324.4 ypg and just 29th in passing (195.9), thanks in large part to a shaky offensive line which has allowed 28 sacks, the third most in the NFL.
Cutler and Forte have been inconsistent while Chicago's lone big play threat outside the numbers has been Marshall, who has 59 receptions for 797 yards and seven touchdowns.
Something has to give here. Each team's only blemish has been to the Packers and the Bears are 4-0 at home while Houston is 3-0 on the road.
"Each game as you continue to win, the stakes go up a little bit higher," Smith said. "We realize that and we're going to embrace it. We're going to embrace this national stage that we have this Sunday night."
The wild card could be the weather in ChiTown. The forecast for kickoff calls for rain and temperatures in the 30s with winds gusting up to 15 mph.
"It's just something you just have to work through," Schaub said of the possible inclement conditions. "You've got to learn to adjust to it. It is what it is, and it's that way for both teams. You've just got to go play."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 21, Texans 20