Bears Control Their Fate

The Bears are especially tough in the middle of their defense, meaning center Matt Birk will have to be on his game mentally and physically if the Vikings want to even attempt a running game.

For the second time in six days the prime time spotlight will shine on the Metrodome. The Vikings play their second consecutive nationally televised game in a matchup with the Chicago Bears, as the Vikings look to knock the Bears down a peg after their solid start.

The game will be critical for both teams. For the Vikings, it will mean trying to avenge a loss in the second week of the season, while the Bears will be playing their third of six consecutive games against the NFC Central — which will go a long way to determining if Chicago has the staying power to be a 2001 playoff team.

The Bears' 7-2 start was really no fluke, but far from a mandate for home-field advantage in the playoffs. After Chicago's tough loss to the Ravens in Week 1, the Vikings essentially handed the Bears a win in Week 2. After that, Chicago's next five wins came against teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2000 (the Falcons, Cardinals, Bengals, 49ers and Browns). With their previous two games against the Packers and Buccaneers — both needing wins to stay within chasing distance of Chicago — the Vikings find a Bears team in control of the division and their fate.

The biggest question mark with the Bears has been a consistent inconsistency on offense and defense. Offensively, the best thing that may have happened to Chicago was that the Vikings injured starting QB Shane Matthews. With him out of the lineup, Jim Miller helped open up the offense — and suddenly the Bears ran off five straight games in which they averaged 29 points a game.

How they've done that has been something of a mystery, since players like receivers Marty Booker, David Terrell and Dez White don't give defensive coordinators nightmares. The one constant through it all has been rookie running back Anthony Thomas. The A-Train has showed the ability to control the ball with 25-carry games and keep the opposition's offense on the sidelines. In the process, the Bears have gained confidence in their offense and left it to the defense to make critical late stops that have allowed the improbable late-game wins for the Bears.

The defense has used an unusual formula for success. Much of it was built in the same way the 1985 champion Bears were built — through the draft. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher leads a defense that is young and has grown together as a unit. But it was a pair of key free agent acquisitions that has put the Bears over the top.

A team that has been very hit and miss in free agency, the Bears hit the jackpot in signing defensive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor as designated run stuffers. Both have done an incredible job and taken away the middle running game from most offenses, forcing teams to go one-dimensional with outside running and passing to get the job done.

The Bears are the enigma of 2001 in the NFC. They haven't beaten enough teams to make believers but have set themselves up to bury the division competition if they stay hot. It won't be easy for the Vikings, but the Bears are as big an opponent as they've been since the Mike Ditka days, and the Vikings will have to be on their game to get a win. VU

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