True Test Begins

Not to take anything away from the Bears' 6-3 record, but they've done what was expected of any team with postseason hopes - they took advantage of a favorable schedule.

The combined record of their first six victims is 18-36. The remaining schedule will be much more difficult than the first nine games, beginning on today with the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field. That should provide a more accurate evaluation of the Bears' postseason prospects.

"It just so happens we have some teams with good records (coming up)," Bears coach Lovie Smith said, "but I think we've beaten some good football teams right now."

Smith is at least half right.

The Bears have not yet defeated a team with even a .500 record. But starting today, they will have plenty of opportunities to prove they can beat a good team. In the next five weeks, the Bears face two 7-2 teams (the Panthers and Steelers) and two 6-3 teams (the Bucs and Falcons). Smith admits the Bears' schedule is about to become more difficult.

"I think just in general it gets tougher later in the year," he said. "You get yourself in position early in the season, but once November and December come around, that's the playoff stretch right there, and that's where we are."

The only two games that might be considered relatively easy games on paper are against the 2-7 Packers, who have beaten the Bears 19 times in the last 22 meetings. Four of the Bears' last six games are on the road, including at Tampa and at Pittsburgh. They finish up at Green Bay on Christmas Day, then play on New Year's Day at Minnesota, where they've lost three straight.

But the Bears weren't thinking about any of that as they prepared for the Panthers, the team many consider the class of the NFC. It's a game Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher calls the biggest he's played in since 2001. The Panthers have won six straight, one more than the Bears, and they've done it using some of the same methods.

"I'm interested to see two good defenses play," Smith said. "We feel like we're as good as anybody out there. We've heard an awful lot about theirs (defense). Two good running games … there are a lot of things that we want to see, see how we match-up and go from there."

The Panthers defense is No. 2 in rushing yards allowed, while the Bears are No. 8. The Bears defense is No. 1 in points and total yards allowed, while the Panthers are eighth in both categories. Both defenses rely heavily on outstanding linemen.

Carolina doesn't run the ball as well as the Bears, but the Panthers throw it a lot better, thanks to quarterback Jake Delhomme and especially wide receiver Steve Smith, who leads the NFL with 937 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns. Smith is so good the Panthers felt they could afford to cut Muhsin Muhammad in the off-season.

"We still talk almost every week," Muhammad said of his former teammate. "He's excited about trying to break all of my records there."

Muhammad had 93 catches for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns last season with the Panthers. But his numbers have dipped with the Bears. He's pacing the team in receptions (38) and yardage (474), while he's tied for the lead in touchdowns (2).

The Panthers have already defeated every other team in the NFC North, although they only beat the Packers 32-29 at home and the Lions 21-20 at Detroit. But the Panthers have outscored their last three opponents by a combined 102-30, trouncing the Vikings 38-13, the Bucs 34-14 and the Jets 30-3.

"We've worked awful hard to get in this position," Smith said. "We have a good football team coming in and they're getting ready to play a good football team."

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