The Chicago Bears and Houston Texans face off this weekend in the biggest marquee matchup of the NFL season so far. Both teams are 7-1, with each about to begin their push for home field advantage in the playoffs. It is only the sixth time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that two teams with one or fewer loss have met in Week 10 or later.
"You have two 7-1 teams coming in," said Lance Briggs. "It's a perfect situation on a great Sunday night on a big stage. We're all fired up about it."
It's a contest that will see two of the best teams in their respective conferences fight it out on prime time. Yet players and coaches for both teams this week have downplayed the importance of Sunday night's game.
"It is what it is," said Kelvin Hayden. "Both teams are 7-1 but that don't mean anything in November."
Chicago has had a soft schedule to start the season, having beat just one team with a winning record (Indianapolis), which makes Houston by far the club's toughest opponent to this point. Yet, while they are a talented team, Brian Urlacher doesn't feel the team needs any extra motivation this week.
"It is a big challenge for us just like every week is. But no more than any other game," Urlacher said. "Every team is good in the NFL. They all have good personnel. Last week they had good personnel. The week before, Carolina had good personnel. So they're all big, they're all tough."
The Texans come into the game ranked second in the league in points scored per game (29.6), fourth in points allowed (17.1), third in total defense (286.1) and sixth in turnover differential (+8). Most fans and analysts believe we'll have a much better idea of how good the Bears are after this matchup. If they win, everyone in Chicago will surely consider them Super Bowl bound, while a loss will have many throwing in the towel.
"This is Chicago. Fans are always going to overreact either way," said Briggs. "They're either going to be overly joyed that we're dominating or going to be upset that it's kind of slow moving."
It would do everyone well to put this game into perspective. It is just one of 16 games on the 2012 slate. Chicago will play seven more games after the Houston contest. Win or lose, there will be plenty of time for the Bears to improve or regress throughout the remainder of the schedule. Sunday's game is a great matchup but it will not make or break Chicago's season.
Following the Texans, the Bears get San Francisco on the road, then the Vikings, Seahawks, Vikings, Packers, Cardinals and Detroit – with three of the final four on the road. All but one of those teams (Arizona) are .500 or better. So as important as the game this Sunday might seem in the short term, remember, there is a ton of football left to be played.
"There's some big challenges coming up and we have to step up and we will step up for that," said Roberto Garza. "We want to set ourselves apart and these are games to do it in. But it's a 16-game season and obviously not everything is going to be done after these games."
Outside of the final score, everyone should be watching for progress each week, particularly on the offensive side of the ball under first-time coordinator Mike Tice.
"I think offensive football is an ongoing thing," Tice said. "Each week you're trying to come up with a plan that's going to put your guys in position to make plays, put your guys in position where they can make their blocks. Sometimes your guy you think is going to have a matchup in his favor doesn't have that matchup in his favor, because he doesn't play as well as expectations. That's just offensive football. It's a long, long season, and it's an ongoing thing, it goes on week after week."
Although a win on Sunday would be great, the Bears doesn't need to play their best ball in Week 10. They need to be peaking in Weeks 18-21. No matter the outcome this Sunday, there will still be plenty of time to make that happen.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.