LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The Chicago Bears could breathe a little easier this week even if their quarterback was having some trouble.
That's because the Carolina Panthers are coming to town in disarray.
The Bears? They're doing just fine.
Tops in the NFC North and with a four-game win streak, Chicago (5-1) will try to keep it going against the struggling Panthers (1-5) on Sunday.
This sure looks like a mismatch — or a trap.
"It's hard, week in and week out, and then you get some teams that have their backs against the wall," said the Bears' Jay Cutler, who vowed to be ready after Detroit's Ndamukong Suh bruised his ribs on a sack Monday night. "You just never know. They're going to play their hardest football they've played all year."
With a four-game losing streak and the worst record in the NFC after falling 19-14 to Dallas, the Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney and essentially put everyone else on notice.
Coaches, players — no one's safe, except maybe Cam Newton. And his inconsistent play is one reason the Panthers are in this spot.
Injuries haven't helped, either.
In the past two weeks, they've lost three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil (foot), cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) and three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason (knee and shoulder issues) to season-ending injuries.
They've been unable to pull out close games, with four of their five losses by six points or less, and there's just simply a bad vibe around this team. Hurney pointed toward a leadership void in the locker room, and several players and coaches agreed.
Then there's Newton and his demeanor, which is being dissected as if his last name were Cutler.
"I just keep living life," Newton said. "I understand I'm not perfect. I'm striving to be great. What other people may think or what other people may criticize me on, I take it for what it's worth but continue to try to make myself better each and every opportunity that I get."
Clearly, the rough start is taking a toll. Losing is something he didn't do at Auburn, and his leadership has come into question.
He was criticized by teammate Steve Smith earlier in the year for sulking on the sidelines, and national media outlets chided him for pointing fingers after Sunday's loss to Dallas.
Newton was 21 of 37 for 233 yards in that one with a touchdown and an early interception in the red zone. He has more interceptions (6) than touchdown throws (5) this season, and with 1,387 yards passing, he's on pace to finish with about 3,700 after going off for 4,051 as a rookie.
Now, he's staring at a team allowing a league-low 13 points per game, one that also leads the NFL with 21 takeaways. The way the defense is playing, Panthers coach Ron Rivera just might have a few flashbacks to 2006, when he was the Bears' defensive coordinator and Chicago was stifling opponents on the way to the Super Bowl.
That group lost two key components to season-ending injuries along the way in defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown. The Bears have all their main players available, although Brian Urlacher still is limited as he tries to work his way back from a knee injury.
"I think this group can be better," Rivera said. "I really do. Because the front four is probably better (than 2006), and it really begins with those guys up front."
The Bears have been getting big contributions from the usual suspects in Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, who contained Calvin Johnson on Monday. But Tim Jennings has stepped up in a big way with four interceptions, and the defensive line has come through, too.
Even so, the Bears could be tested.
"They have two excellent running backs," coach Lovie Smith said. "They have a very good tight end in Greg Olsen that we know all about. And Steve Smith is still one of the best receivers in the game."
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