Division Up for Grabs

Despite a 1-2 record, the Bears find themselves nestled comfortably into the driver's seat heading toward Cleveland Sunday.

If they aren't leading the embarrassing NFC North by midseason, it's only because they've driven off the road in an accident they caused. The Bears' next six opponents have a combined total of seven wins, and none of the six has a winning record.

"If we continue to win from here on out, we'll be in the playoffs," safety Mike Brown said. "That's the way we have to take things."

The Browns are also 1-2, but they're in last place in the AFC North, where the 4-0 Bengals have more victories than all four NFC North teams combined. While the NFC North - which the Bears lead - has combined for a total of three victories, the NFC East has 11, and every other division has at least six.

"I think the time is now," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We can't wait for what's going to happen later on. We see an opportunity that we've (been) given."

After the Browns, the Bears are at home against the 1-3 Vikings and the 1-2 Ravens. Then they visit the 1-2 Lions and the 2-2 Saints in Baton Rouge, followed by a home game against the 1-3 49ers.

"We feel like our team is in great shape to make a big push right now," Smith said. "Two weeks ago we really played well (in a 38-6 victory over the Lions). We were knocked back a little bit the last time we went out (24-7 loss to the Bengals) but we (have) a chance to be the team that I know we can be on a consistent basis."

Health-wise the Bears are close to 100 percent. Safety Mike Brown (hamstring), kicker Doug Brien (back) and tight end Desmond Clark (neck) are all probable this week, and backup linebacker Joe Odom (sprained ankle/foot) is out, but everyone else is healthy.

"We're ready to get back out there and prove ourselves again against a good team on the road," said defensive tackle Ian Scott, who leads the Bears' linemen with 24 tackles. "It's a chance to distance ourselves a little bit from the other teams in our division. If we get to 2-2, we'll be in a good place, and then we've got another division game the week after that, so this week is important for us."

The Browns are also coming off an open weekend and may be better than their record indicates. They defeated the Packers in Green Bay, while their losses have been to the Bengals and Colts, both of whom are 4-0. The same might be said of the Bears. Their losses are to the Bengals and the 3-0 Redskins.

"It's a big one," Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher said. "On the road, it'll really say a lot about our team the way we come out of that."

It's not inconceivable that the Bears could lose Sunday and remain in first place, since the Lions host the Ravens, the Packers are at home against the Saints and the Vikings are idle. But even in the NFC North, someone is bound to catch fire at some point, even if that means playing .500 ball.

SERIES HISTORY:
13th meeting. Browns lead series 8-4 over Bears, but they gave met just once in the past 12 years, a 27-21 Bears victory in overtime on Nov. 4, 2001. The Bears scored 14 points in the final 28 seconds of regulation and then won on the Browns' first possession, when QB Tim Couch's pass was batted at the line of scrimmage by DT Bryan Robinson and picked off by S Mike Brown, who returned it 16 yards for the win. It was the second straight week in which Brown returned an interception in overtime for a Bears victory.


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