Bears silence Panthers

CHICAGO - Sunday's 13-3 Bears win over the Carolina Panthers will be remembered as "silenced Sunday."

The Bears silenced those who said they hadn't proven themselves worthy of elite status by playing a weak schedule. Their No. 1 ranked defense silenced talk they had yet to stop a playoff-worthy offense. Quarterback Kyle Orton silenced talk that a healed Rex Grossman was closing in to take back his spot. The offensive line silenced anyone who thought a fight between center Olin Kreutz and tackle Fred Miller would break their continuity.

Above all, the Bears silenced the Carolina Panthers in their most dominant showing against a conference contender since the days of coach Mike Ditka, running their winning streak to six -- which equals the longest streak since the 1986 team won seven straight.

"We're the real deal," said Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher, who triggered the victory for second straight week, leaving the 7-3 Bears 2 1/2 games ahead of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. Minnesota plays at Green Bay tonight.

The Bears' defense started fast and kept the heat on Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme all game even though wide receiver Steve Smith was able to catch a career-high 14 passes for 169 yards.

"We thought that was important in a close game like this -- two mirrored teams," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of the quick start. "Of course, you always want to get off to a good start like that, but luckily we were able to today."

Vasher had started a 17-9 win over San Francisco the previous week with a 108-yard missed field goal return. He didn't get into the end zone this time, but made two first-quarter interceptions to set the Bears' offense up in the red zone.

"They're on the road, and when you come to somebody's home and you turn the ball over that quick that can take a little bit of the air out of your sails and I think that's what happened," Ogunleye said. "They got off track and they had to change their whole game plan when they started turning the ball over like that.

"They just played into our hands."

They played into Vasher's hands. On the Panthers' first possession, Vasher intercepted a third-and-10 pass to Ricky Proehl and returned it 46 yards to Carolina 8-yard line. Three plays later, quarterback Kyle Orton hit wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad slanting in on third-and-goal for a 3-yard touchdown pass.

Vasher's interception and 22-yard return put the Bears at the Panthers' 18 with 6:31 left in the first quarter. It led to a 33-yard Robbie Gould field goal for a 10-0 lead.

"That was real big," Orton said about the big early lead. "Our defense is so good playing with the lead. They just get all after the quarterback and just make it so tough for the other team.

"We got off to a nice lead, wasted a few opportunities -- you know, we had a couple opportunities I think to put them away in the first half but kind of wasted those opportunities -- but all in all we played well, ran the football well, we ran the football well and played well."

Orton completed 15-of-26 for 136 yards but had six easy catches dropped by Muhammad and tight end Desmond Clark.

Running back Thomas Jones shrugged off sore ribs to rush for 87 yards on 25 carries, including a 20-yard burst in the second quarter which led to Gould's 39-yard field goal 7:08 before halftime for a 13-0 lead.

"The offensive line was doing a great job," Jones said. "We played well together. We have a great chemistry. We've been seeing that ever since we've been playing this season but somehow we continue to find ways to make plays and it starts with the offensive line up front."

The Bears had a chance to lock away the game go astray in the third quarter when Orton's pass to Muhsin Muhammad was tipped and then intercepted, but their defense didn't need much more in the way of help.

  • They tossed Delhomme around for eight sacks and 52 yards in losses, three sacks coming from defensive end Adewale Ogunleye and two by Alex Brown. The eight sacks equaled their most since Dec. 27, 1987 against the Los Angeles Raiders. Delhomme completed 22-of-38 for 235 yards but 14 completions for 133 yards came in the second half after they fell behind 13-0.

  • The Panthers' running game amounted to only 55 yards and 16 carries.

  • Six of the Panthers' first 10 possessions resulted in three-and outs, and their only scoring threat in the first three quarters ended with a missed first-quarter John Kasay 46-yard field goal. Kasay had their only points on a 38-yarder with 5:46 left in the game.

  • The fourth-highest scoring team in the NFL -- and only one to score at least 20 points in every game -- had been held to a field goal, and became the sixth of 11 opponents who failed to reach the end zone.

    "We just sent four (pass rushers)," defensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We played pretty good coverage behind it.

    "We mixed up the coverage calls and the guys did a really good job of staying with their man in a lot of the coverages."

    The end came for the Panthers when Delhomme got buried beneath the pass rush of Ogunleye and Tank Johnson on a fourth-down pass attempt at the Bears' 24 with 53 seconds remaining.

    The Bears' defense has now allowed only three TDs in its last 79 times on the field.

    The Bears are now tied with Carolina, the New York Giants, Tampa Bay and Dallas for the second best record in the NFC at 7-3.

    "Everyone was saying how easy our schedule, was but we're No. 2 (in easiest opponents' winning percentage) and Carolina was No. 1," Ogunleye said. "Nobody ever said anything about it. It's funny how the media picks and chooses when they're going to take a story and run with it.

    "The story should have been they hadn't played anybody, until today. And then we came out on top."

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