LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The Chicago Bears breezed through the first half of their schedule in good shape, leading NFC North at 7-1. Things are about to get much tougher.
Houston visits Sunday night in a matchup of two of the league's best teams, and then comes a game at San Francisco next week between NFC contenders.
To that, coach Lovie Smith said, bring it on.
"I don't want the guys to start thinking, 'Hey, let's hold on, something bad's going to happen,'" he said Monday. "We're a 7-1 team. You are what your record says you are and we're a 7-1 football team. We're a good football team. We're excited about playing the Texans. Each game as you continue to win, the stakes go up a little bit higher.
"We realize that and we're going to embrace it," he added. "We're going to embrace this national stage that we have this Sunday night. I see our team getting better and better. We haven't peaked yet."
They sure looked good dismantling Tennessee, scoring the most points for Chicago since 1980 on their way to a 51-20 win.
They got four forced fumbles from Charles Tillman, and their seventh interception return for a touchdown when Brian Urlacher ran one back, extending their single-season record. They also matched one set in 1942 with their seventh defensive touchdown, and they kicked the romp off with a franchise-record 28 points in the first quarter even though their offense got off to a clunky start.
It didn't matter because the defense forced three turnovers in the first 13 minutes, leading to 14 points, and Corey Wootton returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.
"Right now, we're talking an awful lot about our defense," Smith said. "But before this season is over, hopefully this week, it's going to shift where we're going to be talking an awful lot about the weapons we have and the offensive plays that we're making. You can look at that yesterday."
The Bears found their stride on offense in the second half and wound up with 358 yards after being outgained 145 yards to 136 through the first two quarters.
Jay Cutler threw for 229 yards and finished with a 138.1 rating.
Brandon Marshall had 122 yards and three touchdowns receiving. Matt Forte ran for 103 and a score, but the Bears are going to need more at the start if they're going to get by the rest of the way.
"It took a little bit of time," Cutler said. "I think we shortened up some of our routes, just tried to get the ball out quicker, get it in the receivers' hands and get some rhythm that way."
Only one of the remaining games is against a team with a losing record at the moment and none are against a defense ranked lower than 13th. The next two weeks, the Bears will be facing top three defenses, with Houston ranked third and San Francisco second, meaning the offense could be in for some more difficulties.
"We're not there yet, but we are taking steps forward I think," Forte said.
It still hasn't clicked quite the way the Bears envisioned after that busy offseason.
The Bears rank 25th overall on offense and 29th in the passing game, not quite the way they drew it up.
Marshall, their big acquisition, has been everything they thought he would be with 797 yards and seven touchdown catches. He already has more yards than last year's leading receiver Johnny Knox, who had 727 in 14 appearances before a season-ending back injury.
But protection continues to be an issue.
Only Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay has been sacked more times than Cutler, who has absorbed 28 this season. Tennessee got to him three times and he took several more hits, although Smith said the line wasn't to blame for most of that.
Otherwise, he liked what he saw from the offense, particularly in the second half of that game. They'll need more of that with the schedule taking a tougher turn.
"I know we have the Texans next, and I have an idea of some of the other teams we have coming up," Smith said. "But I think this team has enough veterans in the room to stay focused. They know how we do things. They're not looking too far, one play at a time."
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