Lost among all the glowing talk of the Bears' NFL-best defense and 8-3 record has been the anemic performance of the offense.
Now that the Bears are playoff contenders, currently with the No. 2 seed in the NFC, there is concern that they don't have enough offense to succeed at the next level.
Only once this season has the Bears defense permitted an opponent more than 285 total yards, which is outstanding, considering the league average is 318. But the Bears offense has accumulated more than 285 yards just three times; and over the past three weeks, Chicago has averaged just 245. Only once all season have the Bears passed for 150 yards. The offense entered Week 12 ranked 28th in total yards, and it won't move up after getting just 239 against the Bucs.
But, according to coach Lovie Smith, the bottom line is that the Bears offense has outscored its opponent seven weeks in a row.
"That's what you ask your offense to do each week," Smith said, "to score more points than theirs. It's as simple as that."
For the Bears offense, it's as simple as running the ball better than the other team. For 10 straight games, the Bears have rushed for more yards than their opponent. The ground game that was ranked No. 5 in the league after 11 weeks has grabbed the slack left by a passing game that is No. 30. "We're a running football team," Smith said. "We're not going to pass and have a lot of (points). We'd like to break out, and we've been able to do that a couple games. But it's starting to get cold in Chicago; points are hard to come by."
They don't figure to come any easier in the next two weeks against the Packers, No. 10 in yards allowed, and the Steelers, No. 6.
The key concern for the Bears is whether they can continue to run the ball effectively against good defenses that know they can load up the line of scrimmage to stop the running game because the passing game isn't a threat. Thomas Jones has carried 50 times in the past two weeks but managed just 155 yards, an average of 3.1 yards per carry. In the Bears' first six games, Jones averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
The going is getting tougher, according to Jones.
"Teams know we are going to run the ball, and teams put guys around the ball to try to stop that," he said. "The majority of the teams in the NFL don't have (to face) nine guys in the box each week. We just don't see the typical defenses that any other NFL offense would see. Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James don't see nine guys in the box every week.
"Certain things are out of our control. You might block the play very well; you might make the right read, but there are still two guys standing there that are unaccounted for. In a situation like that, it is almost impossible to make something happen. You have to grind it out, grind it out, and that's what we've been doing."
The Bears will be forced to keep grinding away on the ground until they develop a passing game that opponents have to respect. Kyle Orton already has been the starting quarterback in eight victories, more than any Bears rookie quarterback in at least the last 50 years, and probably longer, although accurate records aren't available prior to 1955. While he has managed games with a minimum of mistakes, Orton hasn't shown that he could win a game, although he has made some big plays at crucial times.
But, with former starter Rex Grossman getting closer to full strength each week as he recovers from August's fractured ankle, Orton will need to make more big plays to silence talk of a quarterback change, if and when the winning streak ends.
For now, Smith isn't even discussing a possible switch.
"We're excited about Rex making progress, (but) he's not there yet," Smith said. "Hopefully he will get better to where he can move up on the depth chart, but right now we're not to that."
Grossman was the Bears' No. 3 quarterback against the Bucs, and he could move up a rung for Sunday's game against the Packers. But no further than that, as Smith was quick to point out.
"When I say move up on the depth chart, (I mean) possibly moving up to the backup position once he's completely healthy," the Bears coach said. "But again, Kyle Orton is our starting quarterback, and we like what he's been able to do.
"How many rookies can do what he's done?"
None who played for the Bears in at least the last half-century, but that might not be enough.
"I just got winded," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "It's so hot out there, and you're on the field most of the time. The 50-yard drive (that brought the Bucs within 13-10 with 7:00 left) felt like 100 yards. We just made enough plays to win."
The Bears were outgained 99-45 in total yards in the fourth quarter and outscored 7-0, as the Bucs ran 19 plays to their 12.
"We were just trying to lean up against the ropes at the end of the game," strong safety Mike Brown said. "We made enough plays at the end to hold on, and that's the most important thing."
The heat got to running back Thomas Jones even during pregame.
"I'm not used to the sun, and sometimes the sun can lull you to sleep," Jones said. "I'm used to paying in the cold, which is weird, because I was used to playing in the heat (with Arizona and Tampa), and I would go to cold-weather cities and be freezing."
"We definitely have a better team than we had in 2001, there's no doubt about it," said Brown, who led that team with five interceptions, including two overtime game-winners. "In 2001, I don't think we had the personnel to match up with some teams, but now we have the personnel to match up with (any) team when we play the way we're capable of playing. We're a good football team. We've been saying that since training camp, it just took us seven wins in a row to show other people what it's all about."
"I don't really have any running skills," he said with a smile. "But when they've got all those guys dropping into man coverage, sometimes you get lucky and get through the line when there is a lot of room to run."
Orton's previous 16 rushes had netted 17 yards.
Gilmore had 10 catches in 2002, when Dustin Lyman, John Davis and Fred Baxter were all injured, but he had just one reception since then until Sunday.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
If running back Samkon Gado hadn't attained the 100-yard benchmark for the second time in three games, chances are he's wouldn't be getting a lot of playing time the rest of the season.
Yet, despite putting the ball on the ground again during the 19-14 loss at Philadelphia on Sunday, the likelihood of Gado's remaining the team's featured back for at least one more game is pretty good.
Coach Mike Sherman has little tolerance for fumbles and watched with consternation as the Packers lost the handle on the football four times, three of which resulted in turnovers.
Two of the costly fumbles came on kickoff returns, which contributed to 10 points for the Eagles. The culprits were running back ReShard Lee early in the game and wide receiver Andrae Thurman late in the contest.
"We're going to have to look at something because, obviously, that was a huge detriment in the ballgame," Sherman said Monday of identifying a dependable kickoff returner. "I've never experienced a game where you turn the ball over two times (on kickoffs). ... The last time in the kicking game we had a turnover I think it might have been the Atlanta game three years ago in the playoffs.
"To have two in one game is hard to fathom. It's not acceptable. So, we have to figure this out and look at all of our options right now."
Wide receiver Robert Ferguson volunteered his services after the game. Sherman, though, shot down consideration of his starter, citing how Ferguson isn't 100 percent recovered from the torn knee ligament that recently sidelined him three games.
Meanwhile, Sherman indirectly suggested Monday that Gado won't be relegated to the sideline for Sunday's game at NFC North leader Chicago.
Gado, an intriguing rookie prospect, fumbled for the fourth time in three games. Teammates had covered up his first three miscues, but Gado's drop Sunday at the end of a reception was recovered by the Eagles.
The humble Gado is mystified by his ball-handling problems.
"I have a job to do, and I feel I'm not doing it if I put the ball on the ground," Gado said. "I hope this is just a funk or a phase I'm going through, and I will look back on it (in) that way in four or five years."
Sherman banished Gado to the bench for most of the second half after he fumbled in the Nov. 21 loss to Minnesota.
On Sunday, however, Sherman put Gado back on the field following his potentially costly flub — the Eagles went three-and-out from midfield on the next series.
Undoubtedly, Gado's stellar first half, in which he rushed for 101 yards on 18 carries with a 33-yard touchdown, earned him a reprieve. He finished with 111 yards on 26 rushing attempts.
"As I've explained to (the team), ‘When you touch the football, you have a huge responsibility to this team. And, when you fumble the football consistently or you turn the ball over, you better be doing something pretty dang good or your job is going to be in jeopardy,'" Sherman said.
The Packers have 22 fumbles this season, equaling their total from 2004, and have lost eight of those.
Sherman claims he and his staff devote an inordinate amount of time in practice on working to prevent against fumbles occurring in games. The ball carriers run through a contraption called the Blaster and are put through drills in which defenders are constantly reaching to strip the ball.
"Every chance we can get a hand on a football during our team practices, we do that," Sherman said. "So, from a coaching standpoint, I feel like we've given it more (attention) than possible."
Franks underwent tests on his neck and back. He took a hard hit to the neck from Eagles safety Brian Dawkins on a pass breakup early in the second quarter and was taken off the field on a stretcher.
"Everything came back very positively," Packers coach Mike Sherman said Monday of Franks' tests. "He's experiencing a little bit of back pain, but nothing to the extent that he was yesterday when he was on the field."
Sherman added that Franks' status for the game Sunday at Chicago won't be determined until he's further evaluated by the team's medical staff Wednesday.
"The doctor (Pat McKenzie), who is very conservative in his evaluation, told me, ‘Don't rule him out for sure. We'll see how he reacts when he gets back here,'" Sherman said.
Asked Monday to assess Favre's showing, Sherman said tersely, "He's had better days."
Thornburg, who plays with reckless abandon on special teams, sprained the A-C joint in his right shoulder while covering a kickoff. He had the same shoulder surgically repaired three years ago.
Coach Mike Sherman said the injury would keep Thornburg out indefinitely.