Room on the Bandwagon

Lake Forest - Critics said the 6-3 Bears and their No. 1 defense hadn't proven anything because they achieved their record and their ranking by defeating all sub-.500 teams.

But Sunday's 13-3 victory over the Panthers elevated the Bears, and especially their defense, to elite status -- at least in the NFC. They are now tied for the second-best record in the conference with four other teams, including the Panthers, one game behind the 8-2 Seahawks. The Bears have a two-game lead in the NFC North.

If the playoffs started today the Bears would have the second seed in the NFC and a first round bye. Head coach Lovie Smith is trying to keep the team focused on short term goals rather than looking ahead.

"It's all about winning the division and getting in the playoffs to make that run," Smith said. "It helps a lot when you have a six-game winning streak. We have tunnel vision. It so happens, it seems like each week our next opponent is an opponent that's capable and is having a good season too."

The Bears haven't had a longer streak than their current six straight wins in the same season since running off seven consecutive victories in 1986.

"This was a good 7-2 Carolina football team that everybody projected to be in the Super Bowl, (and they) just got dominated," said cornerback Nathan Vasher, whose two interceptions set up scores that gave the Bears a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. "What does that say about the Bears?"

Vasher was asked if it said the Bears have the best defense in the NFL.

"Oh yeah, definitely," he said. "We work just as hard as anybody else, and I think we execute and play with energy out there. That's all we do."

That was enough against the Panthers.

Defensive tackle Tommie Harris said that finally the Bears might have convinced skeptics that this team is for real.

"When you're not used to winning, it's like it's luck," Harris said of the perception of outsiders. "So now you have to prove to them that it's not luck, that we can play. That's what's happening. Our record's speaking for itself now, and we're on a roll."

The Bears defense kept an opponent out of the end zone for the fifth time this season, and this time it was against a Panthers offense that had averaged 30 points in its last six games, all victories. But the visitors totaled a measly 238 yards of total offense, the ninth straight opponent the Bears have held under 285. Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith had 169 of the Panthers' total on 14 receptions.

The defensive line, which grew weary of hearing about the exploits of their counterparts on the Carolina front four, was responsible for all eight sacks of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Panthers had allowed just 12 sacks in their previous nine games this season.

"I don't know what the stat book says, but you saw it," Harris said. "They came down to Chicago and lost, and we won. Now we're here after the game and everybody has a smile on their face in this locker room, and the No. 1 defensive line is over there."

The Bears haven't had more sacks since 1987. Left end Adewale Ogunleye had three, right end Alex Brown had two, and Harris, Alfonso Boone and Michael Haynes had one each.

After the Bears had walked the walk, they were talking the talk.

"You try to block Alex one on one, and block me one on one, and block Tommie one on one," Ogunleye said, "and I'm betting that nine times out of 10 we're gonna get after him."

The defensive line was also instrumental in holding the Panthers to 55 yards on the ground and in pressuring Delhomme into the two hurried throws that turned into Vasher interceptions. Overall, it was a strong statement as to who has the better defensive line.

"I think you put a defense where it's supposed to be and compare it to others after the year," Smith said. "During the year, comparing, it doesn't really matter an awful lot."

"Just look at our football team, we were supposed to be the worst football team. We started the season and we won a few and we're a little bit better. What does it really mean in between. I think when it's all said and done I'm anxious to see where our defense stands and where we do as a team."

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