Updated: October 18, 2006 6:12:26 AM PDT

Bears make case as NFC's best


Bears on the prowl

CHICAGO -- The best team in the NFC won't be decided until late in the evening of Jan. 21, 2007, when the clock runs out on the conference title game.

For now, though, the Bears are keeping the throne warm.

The much-anticipated showdown of NFC unbeatens turned into a beat-down, with the Bears beating the Seahawks 37-6. While a Week 4 win won't mean jack come playoff time, the victory was nonetheless significant for the Bears. Besides the fact that Chicago now stands as the lone undefeated team in the conference, and one of three in the league (Baltimore, Indianapolis), dominating the defending conference champions (albeit without reigning MVP Shaun Alexander and tight end Jerramy Stevens) proves that these Bears are in fact for real. They had scored their other victories over division opponents, and let's not kid ourselves: The NFC North these days doesn't exactly remind anyone of the old "black and blue division."

Grossman
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Rex Grossman, right, has tossed eight TD passes in four games.

"We just finished the first quarter of our season," said Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who has led Chicago to victory in 15 of their last 20 regular-season games. "It's not like we played a perfect game by any means tonight."

Perhaps, but somehow we think a performance such as this will be plenty good enough to win most nights: No turnovers, two touchdowns and a 100.5 rating from rising-star quarterback Rex Grossman; 143 yards on the ground and 35½ minutes of possession; five sacks and two interceptions of Matt Hasselbeck; and two denials of the Seahawks' offense in the first half when it had first-and-goal opportunities.

Each week Grossman makes the preseason calls for Brian Griese to sound sillier. If his four-TD performance against Green Bay in Week 2 was Grossman's coming-out party, you might say he graduated Sunday night (with a possible master's to come only in the postseason, of course). Grossman didn't appear to make many mistakes with the exception of taking a first-down sack in the first quarter. He threw it away when he had to, checked down when he could and threw some beautiful balls both long and intermediate.

It looks like the Bears -- finally -- have their franchise quarterback. And Chicago finally got a taste of its bread and butter from last year, its running game. Entering Week 4, the Bears averaged 83 yards on the ground; in this game, Thomas Jones got on track to the tune of 98 yards and two scores on 24 attempts.

Whereas in '05, Chicago's defense had to win games by itself, these Bears are a complete ballclub, maybe the most complete in the league. They can stretch the field. The running game is coming back around. And with an offense that can create leads and capitalize off turnovers, Chicago's defense is able to attack more and unleash the front four.

Are Da Bears da best team in football? Not that it matters much in the grand scheme of things, but lots of folks will say "yes" after Sunday night. We'll find out for sure in January. And if the game is at Soldier Field, it's going to be mighty difficult for any team to come into Chicago and prove otherwise.

Heard in the press box (in Baltimore)

• The collapse against Notre Dame was bad enough, but Michigan State alums are really screaming after Saturday's ignominious defeat to the University of Illinois, a Big Ten doormat. If the Spartans decide to dump coach John L. Smith at the end of the season, keep an eye on current Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur to be a strong candidate for the job. Shurmur played for the Spartans from 1983-87 and was an assistant coach from 1988-97.

• Many teams admire San Diego backup tailback Michael Turner, who averaged 6.6 yards on seven carries in Sunday's loss at Baltimore, and feel that LaDainian Tomlinson's caddy could start for them. But Turner has two seasons remaining on his contract, so suitors will have to wait a while longer. The low-slung Turner is a real slasher with home-run speed.

• What's the difference this season in Ravens weakside linebacker Bart Scott (who went into Sunday's game tied for the NFL lead in sacks)? Scott started 10 games at middle linebacker when Ray Lewis was hurt in 2005, and the fifth-year veteran and former undrafted college free agent gained a ton of confidence from his expanded exposure. Scott nearly signed with the Cleveland Browns; he was at their complex preparing to finalize an unrestricted free-agent contract in the spring when the Ravens' brass reached him on his cell phone and told him they would match the offer.

• A lot of the struggles of the Miami offense can be placed on the shoulders of quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was sacked five times again Sunday by a Houston defense that had just three sacks in its previous three games. For all the talk of his miraculous recovery from three torn ligaments in his right knee, Culpepper has lost a lot of quickness and can't get away from even the slowest pass-rushers right now. But a notable element, too, is that Dolphins offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who got so much credit for cobbling together a solid quintet in 2005, hasn't been able to repeat that magic. The Miami O-line is a mess through the first four games.

• No doubt that one of the best coaching jobs of the first month was turned in by first-year sideline boss Eric Mangini of the New York Jets. His team doesn't have a lot of talent, and the defensive components are an ill fit for the 3-4 front that Mangini is running, but the Jets have played smart and disciplined so far in 2006. Keep an eye on second-year safety Kerry Rhodes, clearly the most consistent playmaker on the unit; Mangini and coordinator Bob Sutton will increasingly build around him. On the flip side, don't be surprised if this Jets' staff throws in the towel at some point on former first-round pick Dewayne Robertson, the fourth overall choice in the 2003 draft. Robertson is a solid 4-3 tackle but just isn't suited to the 3-4 front.

• Tampa Bay keeps inquiring about Oakland quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and keeps getting rebuffed. So it looks like the Bucs may just try to get by with two quarterbacks on the roster. Bucs officials remain optimistic that Luke McCown, who has the kind of mobility coach Jon Gruden likes, will be ready to come off the physically unable to perform list after the sixth week of the season. McCown had surgery in the spring to repair a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament. Meanwhile, the Raiders still would like to part with wide receiver Jerry Porter before the Oct. 17 trade deadline.

• The Bucs' brass is more concerned about tailback Cadillac Williams' lingering back problems than they will ever admit.

• Everyone talks about the talent of the Colts but, to be honest, take a look at some of the guys they have been forced to use on defense. They have started players such as Kelvin Hayden, maybe their fourth-best corner, and still have been able to win. Maybe it's time to give some credit to the coaches on the defensive side for making do with some average players and continuing to win.

• Despite the rumors that he might follow former commissioner Paul Tagliabue into retirement, NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw is poised to sign a new contract extension. The deal, reportedly for four or five years, was negotiated by agent Tom Condon of CAA and requires just the approval of the NFLPA's executive board, which is considered merely a formality.

• For all the criticism that former Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe still takes, the fact remains that he drafted the Bills' starting quarterback, J.P. Losman, who is playing well, a franchise-level tailback in Willis McGahee and a deep-threat receiver in Lee Evans.

• St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger doesn't get nearly enough credit. He throws a very catchable ball and is putting up big numbers even in a more conventional offense than the Mike Martz design. By the way, first-year coach Scott Linehan did a really smart thing recently by going back to the nomenclature the Rams used in the passing game under Martz, and the move eliminated some of the confusion that St. Louis had in the first few outings.

Clayton's Quick Hits

•  After Arizona's 32-10 loss to Atlanta, it's not a surprise that Cardinals coach Dennis Green decided to make Matt Leinart his starting quarterback in Week 5. Warner brought his fumble total to 10 and his interception total to five on Sunday. Despite having one of the most dangerous three-receiver sets in football, the Cardinals aren't scoring as they expected. With their record at 1-3, they are at a crossroads. They have home games against the Chiefs and Bears in the next two weeks. Though that's a lot to put on a rookie quarterback's shoulders, Green basically has no choice but to go to Leinart.

• On the flip side, Titans coach Jeff Fisher couldn't pick a worse time to start rookie QB Vince Young. The Titans are in a three-game stretch against far superior teams (Cowboys, Colts and Redskins), with trips to Indianapolis and D.C. coming in the next two weeks. That doesn't give Young a good chance of succeeding. Young likely would head into a bye week with an 0-3 record as a starter. The problem of moving a rookie quarterback into the starting lineup too early is that if he loses too many games, the players lose confidence in him. Ask Joey Harrington, who had that happen to him in Detroit.

• Bengals coach Marvin Lewis made a bold decision to deactivate wide receiver Chris Henry, who was with suspended teammate Odell Thurman when he was arrested for driving while under the influence. Even though the Bengals were blown out by the Patriots, Henry, one of the league's top red-zone threats, wasn't really needed. The Bengals reached the Patriots' red zone only once and ended up with a field goal. Lewis made his point. Players have to be accountable for off-the-field problems.

• Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown needs to be credited for his unselfishness. Brown, who has played cornerback in the past for New England, was willing to step in Sunday as a nickel cornerback because of the injuries that sidelined cornerback Ellis Hobbs and safety Eugene Wilson.

• It has been a crazy start to the season. Awaiting the result of the Packers-Eagles MNF game, 32 of 59 games have been decided by a touchdown or less (that is, eight points or fewer, given the two-point conversion). Scoring is off by more than a field goal compared to last year, and there have been plenty of close games. On Sunday, for example, eight games were decided by a touchdown or less.

-- Check out John Clayton's blog

Scouts Inc. Takes

• As everyone expected, the Ravens-Chargers game was a dogfight between two great defenses. The Chargers' offense came out quickly in a no-huddle attack that threw Baltimore's defense off and gave San Diego an early lead. Their no-huddle approach kept the Ravens from substituting freely and helped the Chargers dictate the tempo. But the Chargers could not put the Ravens away. The Ravens spent their second-half timeouts early and couldn't stop the clock in the final minutes, yet mounted an outstanding Steve McNair-led drive to win it. This was McNair's coming-out party in Baltimore given his performance in the clutch.

• Defensively, the Panthers did a great job of forcing the Saints into being a one-dimensional team by shutting down the running lanes with their front seven and allowing the Saints only 63 yards on the ground. QB Drew Brees had another great game, taking what the Panthers' defense gave him, but it wasn't enough for the Saints to overcome a good Carolina defense.

• The Patriots were without their starting right tackle, free safety and best cornerback, but their pass protection was outstanding and their makeshift defensive backfield limited Cincinnati's high-powered attack. The Patriots' running game -- Laurence Maroney looked like a superstar -- was more than the Bengals could handle. Cincinnati's soft run defense and poor pass protection may be their undoing and should provide them with plenty of work to do during their bye week. New England showed serious swagger and made a statement to the rest of the AFC. They just don't lose two games in a row.

-- For more from Scouts Inc., check out the Briefing Room and all of their divisional blogs: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West, NFC East | NFC South | NFC North | NFC West

The Green Room

Question: Jeremy, when will the media acknowledge that Michael Vick is a terrible passer?
Green: I think that has been established. I say it here almost every week. I think other people maybe cut him a little more slack because of the athletic ability. Even though they will be a playoff team this year, it will be hard for the Falcons to make any noise if he does not improve as a passer.


Question: Do you think Sean Payton should stop using Reggie Bush as a decoy and start giving him 20-25 carries a game?
Green: I don't think he should carry it that much. I like the way they are using him and he is more than just a decoy. I think he should be touching it 20-25 total times a game as a runner, receiver and return man.


Question: Hey Jeremy, what do think about the N.Y. Giants?
Green: I think their pass defense is horrendous, but offensively they are very good. They need to get their run game going a little bit, though, and the best way to do that would be to stop falling behind so early in the game.

Pasquarelli's Game Ball
Moss
Moss
What's the old NFL saying about how big players make big plays in big games? Well, sometimes little guys come up big, too, at crunch time. Witness wide receiver Santana Moss of Washington, the biggest-play guy in a Redskins' passing game that typically relies on the Smurf-sized (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) sixth-year veteran to stretch opposition secondaries to the snapping point. Moss had four catches for 138 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday, including a spectacular 68-yard scoring play that lifted the Redskins over the Jacksonville Jaguars less than two minutes into overtime.

Moss' score was the kind of huge-effort play for which he has become renowned in less than two seasons in Washington, as he squeezed between cornerback Brian Williams and free safety Deon Grant. The Redskins could ill afford to drop a third game in the first four outings of the season and Moss guaranteed they'd beat the Jags by scoring on short (eight yards), medium (31) and long (68) catches. Three of his four receptions were for 31 yards or longer as he continually bailed out QB Mark Brunell. The three scores were the first of the season for Moss but were reflective of what he has meant to the Redskins in his 20 starts. In that stretch, Moss has 101 receptions for 1,809 yards (17.9-yard average) and 12 touchdowns. The dozen scoring plays have averaged 43.7 yards. Five have been for 50-plus yards, four for 60-plus yards and three for 70-plus yards.

WEEK 4 RUNDOWN
Houston 17, Miami 15
Let's see ... Ronnie Brown is the leading receiver and Chris Chambers is the second-leading rusher. So much for the Dolphins' offense getting healthy against the Texans.

Kansas City 41, San Francisco 0
The offense rolls up 333 yards, they score on special teams and the defense notches a shutout. Not a bad day for the Chiefs.

Dallas 45, Tennessee 14
What was all the fuss about? T.O. started, led the team in receiving yards, made some nice blocks and, oh yeah, the Cowboys won big.

Atlanta 32, Arizona 10
And with an interception returned for a TD and yet another fumble near the red zone, we welcome in the Matt Leinart era in Arizona.

Buffalo 17, Minnesota 12
What happened to the balanced Minnesota offense? The Vikings were nearly a 50-50 run-pass team heading into the game, but ran on just 16 of 60 offensive plays.

Carolina 21, New Orleans 18
A must-win division game for the Panthers, they showed they still belong in any discussion about the best teams in the NFC.

Indianapolis 31, New York Jets 28
Gee, you think the New York media is going to second-guess Eric Mangini's decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal instead of kicking a field goal in the third quarter?

Baltimore 16, San Diego 13
Not too much of a statement game for the Ravens ... the Baltimore defense showed it isn't quite ready to surrender its title as the league's best defense and Steve McNair proved he's not quite washed up just yet.

• St. Louis 41, Detroit 34
Funny how the Rams played like the old Greatest Show On Turf Rams against their old coach, Mike Martz.

• Cleveland 24, Oakland 21
It's so bad in Oakland that Cleveland's Charlie Frye -- Charlie Frye! -- can lead a fourth-quarter comeback win.

• Washington 36, Jacksonville 30 (OT)
There was never any chance Mark Brunell missed this one. Brunell lit up his former team and silenced the critics -- for now.

• New England 38, Cincinnati 13
Bet you didn't know that Corey Dillon passed Ricky Watters to move into 15th place on the NFL's all-time leading rusher list.

• Chicago 37, Seattle 6
The Bears made a pretty convincing case to take over the mantle as the team to beat in the NFC.

-- ESPN.com

COACH RATINGS
Billick
Billick
Brian Billick has led the Ravens to a 4-0 start. How would you grade his coaching job in Week 4? what about Art Shell, whose Raiders fell to 0-3?

Our Coach Ratings give you a chance to cast your vote for all 32 coaches.

• Coach ratings

FANTASY FOCUS
Maroney
Maroney
From a huge performance from Laurence Maroney to a disappointing game from Carson Palmer, Eric Karabell goes game-by-game recapping the fantasy action from Week 4. Also, Scott Engel offers his observations of Sunday's action.

• Karabell: Week 4 wrap
• Engel: Week 4 observations

• Complete fantasy football coverage
WRITER'S BLOC
Chargers at Ravens
Veteran Steve McNair got it done again late, leading another comeback win for the unbeaten Ravens, writes Len Pasquarelli. Story
Cowboys at Titans
After a week of intense media hype, Terrell Owens returned to the field and was, well, simply T.O., writes John Clayton. Story
Redskins at Jaguars
The Redskins have finally started executing Al Saunders' offense and the results were on display Sunday, writes Seth Wickersham. Blog
ONE TO GO
Packers at Eagles (8:30 ET, ESPN)
The Packers and Brett Favre travel to Philadelphia to take on Donovan McNabb and the Eagles. From our Fan Challenge to in-depth analysis, Monday Night Surround has the game covered.

• Monday Night Surround
ELIAS SAYS
• The Patriots rebounded from a 17-7 loss at Denver to defeat the Bengals, 38-13. New England has now played 53 consecutive games, dating back to 2002, without a two-game losing streak. That ties the 1976-79 Denver Broncos for the second-longest such streak since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The 49ers had a streak of 60 games from 1995-99.

• The Falcons lead the NFL with 937 yards rushing after four games. The last team with that many yards through its first four games of a season was the 1980 Detroit Lions (1,001), led by rookie Billy Sims (539).

• Elias says

OUCH, BABE
Michael Boulware, S, Seahawks
Suffered concussion vs. Bears
Cedric Houston, RB, Jets
Carted off field vs. Colts after injuring left knee
Darren Sharper, S, Vikings
Injured left quadriceps vs. Bills
Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins
Left game vs. Texans with injured ribs

• Week 4 infirmary report
MOTION
Ravens win battle of unbeatens.
WEEK 5
Sunday, Oct. 8
Buffalo at Chicago, 1 ET
Cleveland at Carolina, 1 ET
Detroit at Minnesota, 1 ET
Miami at New England, 1 ET
St. Louis at Green Bay, 1 ET
Tampa Bay at New Orleans, 1 ET
Tennessee at Indianapolis, 1 ET
Washington at N.Y. Giants, 1 ET
Kansas City at Arizona, 4:05 ET
N.Y. Jets at Jacksonville 4:05 ET
Oakland at San Francisco, 4:15 ET
Dallas at Philadelphia, 4:15 ET
Pittsburgh at San Diego, 8:15 ET

Monday, Oct. 9
Baltimore at Denver, 8:30 ET, ESPN
Bye: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, Seattle

• Complete 2006 schedule
 

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