Monkey Off Their Backs

CHICAGO -- These days, it can't get much better for the Bears.<p> The offense gets criticized, Chicago responds by putting up 27 points.<p> Jim Miller gets bashed by the media, he tosses two touchdown passes, and threads the needle on a few like he's Joe Montana.<p>

   The Packers lose at Tennessee, giving the Bears the front-row seat in the NFC Central Division race.

   And, Chicago clinches its first playoff spot since 1994 with a 27-3 victory over Tampa Bay Sunday at Soldier Field.

   Santa has definitely been good to the Bears.    "As I've said so many times, this is a wonderful group of guys," Bears coach Dick Jauron said. "They  come to work every day. I don't think they've ever doubted themselves.

   "I don't know of a group I've been around that deserves the playoffs more than this group."

   It was a tough week for the offense leading up to the Buccaneers game. The Bears heard all the negativity surrounding their sad offensive showing in a 17-7 loss to Green Bay. They knew they had to put up, so people would shut up.

   "It wasn't the criticism that got to us, because it was true," Bears center Olin Kreutz said. "We let the defense down (against the Packers), and that's why we came out to play.

   "People thought we were mad at the defense. Hell, if I was on the defense I'd be mad at us last week, too. We had to pick it up for them."

   The Bears did just that with a smash-mouth running game against the Bucs. Chicago (10-3) got 201 yards on the ground, including 173 from rookie Anthony Thomas. The Bears finished with 379 total yards.

   The defense did the rest, holding Tampa Bay to 88 yards of total offense in the second half, and 10 first downs for the game.

   * BOOKED UP: Bears receiver Marty Booker scored on a 2-yard pass from Jim Miller Sunday, but the team's top receiver finished with just three catches for 19 yards.

   Booker, who tops the club in receptions, yards and touchdowns, has 78 receptions for 845 yards and eight touchdowns. He's been held in check as of late, though, and needs a hot finish to catch Johnny Morris' single-season record of 93 catches in 1964.

   Booker had just two catches against Green Bay on Dec. 9, and three against the Vikings on Nov. 25.

   "Maybe it's out of respect, I don't know. Maybe they're adjusting, I don't know," Booker said. "I take it as a good thing, not a bad thing. The only thing I can do is find ways to get open, and work to get the ball."

   * FRIDGE, PART II? The Bears finally showed signs of life offensively against the Bucs.

   But three touchdowns -- the same number combined in three previous games -- won't stop the Bears from looking for options.

   Even if it comes from the other side of the ball. Like using star linebacker Brian Urlacher.

   "There's probably always a time where you would consider it," Jauron said. "I don't know when that would be, but I can't say we haven't talked about it amongst ourselves. It's certainly been brought up at different times. I'm not a big fan of it at this point, but I would never rule it out. I would definitely never rule it out totally.

   "Anytime you have an athlete like that, and if you had a need that he could fill better than anybody else that you had, then you'd use him. So I would never rule it out."

   Urlacher was an all-state wide receiver in high school and returned kicks and punts at New Mexico, where he also had six receptions -- five for touchdowns.

   "He could obviously play a third tight end in a goal-line situation if you needed it," Jauron said.

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