After rebounding from their worst defensive performance of the season in Pittsburgh with one of their best, the Bears are poised to make a run at the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season.
By allowing the Falcons' No. 8-ranked offense just three points, the Bears have given up only 151 points. If they permit a total of 13 points or less against the Packers in Green Bay on Christmas Day at 4 p.m. and the Vikings in Minnesota on New Year's Day, they'll eclipse the Ravens' record of 165 points in 2000. The Bears also have an excellent chance to better the franchise record of 187 points allowed by the 1986 team. The 1985 Super Bowl team permitted 198 points.
Five of the Bears' last six opponents have scored 10 points or less. In the first meetings this season with their NFC North foes, both at Soldier Field, the Bears cruised past the Vikings 28-3 and crushed the Packers 19-7 three weeks ago. Minnesota's offense is No. 26 in yards, while Green Bay's is No. 18. They rank 22nd and 21st, respectively, in scoring.
The Bears' defense shut down Atlanta and the NFL's best rushing offense while missing its top three safeties - Mike Brown (calf), Chris Harris (knee) and Todd Johnson (hip) - plus No. 1 strongside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. It was a major statement, coming short-handed and on the heels of the Steelers game, in which the Bears were gashed for season-worst totals of 363 yards and 190 rushing yards.
"Anytime you don't play well you wonder," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "But at the same time, you also have to say, ‘We played well eight weeks in a row as a team. Every now and then you're going to have a letdown.' You just can't let it become a big thing. We tried to make sure the guys understood that those things do happen, and we needed them back, and we needed them to play hard and give us a great effort, which is exactly what they did."
The Bears held the Falcons to just 231 total yards, their best effort since they allowed 161 yards to the 49ers five weeks ago. The Falcons had been averaging 341 yards per game, and 178 rushing yards, but they managed just 114 on the ground against the Bears.
At least some, if not all, of the injured players should be back for Christmas Day in Green Bay. But even if they're not, the Bears proved last Sunday night they could dominate a good offense with backups playing vital roles.
Backup safeties Mike Green and rookie Brandon McGowan started and played well against Atlanta. Green had an interception and caused another when he separated Michael Jenkins from the ball, which was snagged in mid-air by Nate Vasher.
"Not only the hit that caused the interception, and his own interception, but he played well at other times, too," coach Lovie Smith said of Green. "He's a part of that defense that held them to three points. That's hard to do. They were the No. 1 rushing offense coming in."
McGowan and Leon Joe, who subbed for Hillenmeyer, earned praise from Rivera.
"Brandon came in and did an excellent job for us," Rivera said. "Anytime you can have a rookie come in and make that contribution, you're very pleased with the effort. Leon Joe was exceptional. He made some mistakes, but he made up for it because he played hard and he played fast."
SERIES HISTORY: 171st meeting. The Bears lead the series, 86-78-6. The Packers had dominated the previous 11 years, winning on the road every year and taking 19 of 22 games overall. But the Bears have now won two of the last three meetings, 19-7 three weeks ago at Soldier Field and 21-10 at Lambeau Field last year.
Six players, including five from the NFL's No. 1 defense, will represent the Bears in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Feb. 12. Only the Colts, with seven, will send more. Four of the Bears - cornerback Nate Vasher, tackle Tommie Harris, linebacker Lance Briggs and safety Mike Brown - will be making their first trip, joining center Olin Kreutz, who made it for the fifth straight year, and linebacker Brian Urlacher, who's made it in five of his six seasons.
The Bears also had six players selected during the 1990 season. They had five in 1991 and in 2001, when they went 13-3, but during a five-year stretch from 1994-98 not a single Bear was voted to the Pro Bowl. The last time five Bears defenders made it was during the 1985 Super Bowl season.
"I thought all (of them) deserved it plus a few more," Smith said. "But still that's quite an accomplishment for our program, as we're trying to establish ourselves as one of the (best) teams in the league."
As usual, Kreutz credited his teammates for his success.
"It means my teammates did a lot for me," he said. "I've got a great o-line playing next to me. You don't play o-line by yourself. The guys who have suited up and played this year have done a (heck) of a job and got me some recognition. (Running back) Thomas Jones, I thought he should have made the Pro Bowl, and (offensive left tackle) John Tait should have made the Pro Bowl. With those kind of players around you, you're going to end up looking good."
But that doesn't mean Kreutz is boarding any of his teammates while they're in town for the game at Aloha Stadium.
"I'm going to hide from them," he joked. "Tell them, ‘Don't call me up,' when they get there."
Ayanbadejo, a three-year veteran, led in the fan balloting but came up short for the second time after being a second alternate last season with the Dolphins. He had 23 special-teams tackles last season and has 22 so far this season.
"This is my best season so far," he said. "It's also the most I've been singled out by other teams because there's been games where, on kickoffs, I've been double-teamed the whole game. Two games in a row I didn't even get to run down there and just go against one guy. I had to go against two. I've never had that happen before.
"Last year every game I got double-teamed, but maybe it was just once or twice in the game, but not like it is here, where they do it the whole game. I think people know who I am. But I think next year will probably be better for like personal goals types of things."
Grossman was the guy taking most of the reps in minicamps, spring and summer practices and training camp when the offense was being installed by first-year coordinator Ron Turner. Now that Grossman's back after rehabbing his surgically repaired left ankle for four months, the offense can expand more than it did with rookie Kyle Orton under center.
Grossman played the second half last week and will start Christmas Day for the first time in 15 months. Wednesday was the first time since then he got the majority of the snaps with the first team.
"Last week I think he was a little rusty," Turner said. "But he could see he was much more comfortable and confident, and then (he went) in there and played pretty well. He feels good about where he is. We just have to make sure we're smart with what we do with him and understand that he only has had three weeks."
BY THE NUMBERS: The Bears have allowed 151 points this season, putting them within reach of the NFL record for a 16-game season, which is 165, held by the 2000 Ravens.
The six consecutive home games in which the Bears allowed fewer than 10 points is the longest streak of that nature in the NFL since 1935, when the Packers held all seven of their home opponents to single digits.
The 61 points the Bears allowed in their eight home games are the fewest any team has permitted since the NFL expanded schedules to 16 games in 1978.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think he's the best defensive player in the league. I think he should be the MVP of the National Football League." - Bears coach Lovie Smith on MLB Brian Urlacher.
With only two games remaining in the season, there has been speculation that quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receiver Charles Rogers might be nearing the end of their Detroit Lions careers.
Harrington, the No. 3 pick in the 2002 draft, was the starter through most of his first three seasons and will get the start Saturday against New Orleans, although Jeff Garcia has been the starter through most of the second half of the season.
Rogers, the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft, missed all except five full games of his first two seasons because of injuries and has gotten modest playing time this year after sitting out a four-game suspension for violating the NFL substance abuse policy.
Lions president Matt Millen, under siege himself in recent weeks for the team's fifth consecutive double-digit losing season, has not addressed the status of the two players but he might not be as eager to unload Harrington and Rogers as some might think.
Until the season ends - or perhaps until free agency begins - it remains a matter of speculation, however.
Harrington says he has considered the possibility that he might be on another NFL roster when the 2006 season begins. And he found it amusing that after being booed and insulted by Lions fans for two years, they were actually cheering him in the game Sunday against Cincinnati.
With starter Jeff Garcia struggling and the Lions trailing badly in the fourth quarter, interim coach Dick Jauron sent Harrington in early in the fourth quarter. He completed 6 of 7 passes for 77 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown to Rogers.
For one of the rare occasions since his rookie season, Harrington got cheers from the Ford Field fans.
"The last time I left the field after any significant playing time, they were chanting ‘Joey sucks,' as I went up the tunnel," Harrington said in a radio interview this week.
"So it's funny. When I came into town, the first thing I was told is, ‘We haven't had a quarterback since Bobby Layne,' and the second thing I was told is that the backup quarterback is going to be the most popular player on the team."
Going into the game Sunday, Harrington has a career 54.7 completion percentage with 57 touchdowns, 61 interceptions and a passer rating of 67.5. He was not a good fit for the West Coast offense as it was run by either of his Lions coaches - Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci - but Millen apparently has not soured on him entirely, believing he might be better suited to another style of downfield-oriented offense.
The situation with Rogers is similar. Because of two broken collarbones - one after five games of his rookie season and the other after three plays of the first game in his second season - he has never been able to get into a rhythm or a routine with his quarterback.
His touchdown in the loss to Cincinnati was only the fourth of his career but he has had little opportunity this year to prove or disprove the faith the Lions had in him when they drafted him in 2003.
Jauron was asked about the possibility of developing Rogers in the final weeks of the season and if he regretted not getting Rogers more involved in the Lions' offense in earlier games.
"No, I don't in the least," Jauron said. "You build a team through work. He was a guy I had no history with, here he was on suspension and coming back. He was inactive the first week and had to find a way to get on the field, whether it's through injury or work or somebody takes a step back. You get on the field and when you get there, you've got to perform. And if you perform, you'll get more opportunities. Really, that's our business."
Rogers said he has no control over what the Lions will do at the end of the season but said he will continue to prepare himself to play.
In the meantime, the speculation continues.
SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. The teams are dead even at 8-8-1 after the first 17 games. The Lions have won the last two games, in New Orleans in the 2000 season and in 2002 in Detroit.
"It was probably time, it was time to make the move," Jauron said Wednesday. "We're just trying to see if we can jump-start ourselves and get a win somehow."
The Lions' last win was Nov. 13 against the Arizona Cardinals, a game in which Harrington completed 21 of 31 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns.
Two weeks later, then-coach Steve Mariucci benched Harrington at halftime of the Thanksgiving Day game against Atlanta. Mariucci was fired four days later and Jauron started Garcia the next three games.
With Garcia struggling in the 41-17 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, Harrington was returned to the lineup in the fourth quarter and directed the Lions to their final touchdown of the game.
Jauron was asked if Harrington won the job with his touchdown drive or if Garcia lost it by his failure to win.
"Joey's been fine in practice but he hasn't had a chance really to compete on the field since I've been in this position," Jauron said. "So I guess the answer would be that we didn't win, so it's probably another to say Jeff lost it, but saying it that way is a little bit harsh on that person.
"I can't say enough about Jeff. He's an unbelievable competitor. It wasn't easy for him, it wasn't easy when we talked yesterday. He's disappointed, he feels like he didn't perform like he'd like to. He's disappointed in everybody's performance, the team, where we are, everything."
Jauron said Garcia will be the No. 3 quarterback, with rookie Dan Orlovsky backing up Harrington.
Neither quarterback spoke to the media Wednesday.
"I honestly didn't think I was going to go," Rogers said. "There were a lot of guys out there putting up some good numbers, a lot of guys out there in positive situations."
Rogers has a career-high best 5 1/2 quarterback sacks, including one in each of the last three games, in which he has played some of his most dominating football of the season.
He also has committed a costly penalty - each time a 15-yarder at an inopportune time - in each of the last two games, but it apparently did not hurt him in balloting with fans, players and coaches.
"Shaun, at times, has been phenomenal," interim coach Dick Jauron said. "And most of the time he has been, I would say, outstanding. A very difficult player to contend with, offensively.
"He's a rare form of size - he really is a giant man - and he's extremely quick and athletic. Maybe moreso than about anybody I've been around. He's a rare player and I believe he's just going to get better."
Rogers said his satisfaction with making the NFC Pro Bowl team a second consecutive year was tempered by the Lions' 4-10 record going into the final two games.
"Obviously there's something going on that we have to fix here," he said. "It's going to get fixed, hopefully sooner than later. We just have to move on with that."
Lions cornerback Dre' Bly, a Pro Bowl player in each of the past two seasons, was selected as the first alternate this year but it seems unlikely he will go to Hawaii for the game. He said he has other plans for the early off-season.
"I'm going to be vacationing," Bly said. "If they can find me, they can find me."
Without being critical of Mornhinweg and Mariucci, interim coach Dick Jauron said that any improvement in 2006 will have to start with hard work.
"The way you win - and I feel confident speaking to this because I've been through it - you work, you just keep working and you get better," Jauron said. "And it doesn't happen overnight. It happens over time.
"And you keep making decisions about people ... people you have control over, whether it's on the staff, particularly on the field. You make decisions and you get the right people. Sometimes they are not the best, the most talented people, but they fit together and they build a chemistry and keep working together.
"You've got to make them believe that the work has great value. The work they do now has great value in what we're going to become because we're doing it every day. We're building a little every day. It's hard for them, it's hard for all of us to go through it but you just keep working. When all those things come together, you win."
It is uncertain, however, how much interim coach Dick Jauron will allow co-offensive coordinator Greg Olson to change the play-calling from the conservative West Coast style to a more aggressive downfield passing game that worked effectively when Olson called plays at the end of the 2004 season.
Jauron will be patching the LB corps again this week. With only WLB James Davis avoiding the injured reserve list from the top four LBs, Jauron is getting all he can out of backups Donte' Curry (if he's healthy), Wali Rainer, LeVar Woods and Nate Wayne.
BY THE NUMBERS: 30 - Starts the Lions have lost from the 11 starters in their defensive lineup on opening day. Four of those starters - LBs Boss Bailey and Earl Holmes, CB Fernando Bryant and FS Terrence Holt - are on injured reserve and won't play in the remaining two games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The game of football has done so much for me, why would I cheat the game? It's allowed me to do things I probably would never be able to do if I wasn't playing football, so I would never cheat the game of football." - Lions offensive guard Damien Woody on his motivation for playing hard in the remaining two games of the season.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
T-minus 12 days and counting.
Provided he still has a job himself, Packers coach Mike Sherman implied Wednesday that he will get an answer out of Brett Favre regarding his intentions for next season before the quarterback returns to his Mississippi home following the Jan. 1 season finale.
"He and I will sit down immediately after the season and discuss that," Sherman said.
Favre deliberated on his tractor for more than two months following the completion of last season before announcing he would return for a 14th year of directing the Green Bay offense. The organization can't afford to be so accommodating and patient with its star attraction in the ensuing off-season, what with the damage control that requires immediate attention in the wake of a horrendous season.
Favre is admittedly frustrated by all the adversity and turmoil that has factored into the 3-11 record the Packers will take into their Christmas Day home game against NFC North-leading Chicago.
Yet as he was peppered Wednesday with an array of questions aimed at getting him to drop a hint about his future plans, Favre held his ground. He reiterated that the dubious outcome of this season won't be the basis for his decision.
"More than anything, do I want to play?" Favre said. "There's no guarantee next year will be better or worse (from a team standpoint). No one knows that. We run the risk of having the same situation. I don't know what we're going to do personnel-wise, and it's not for me to decide. My commitment has to be to myself and how much am I willing to give to this team."
The uncertainty of what lies ahead for the Packers - what with Sherman's job security not guaranteed and 16 players due to become unrestricted free agents - could ultimately be what drives Favre away.
He rededicated himself last off-season to get in shape and undertook an intensive workout program at home so he would have the stamina to continue to make plays. All of those well-intended efforts went for naught, however, because early-season injuries to key offensive players doomed the Packers to their first losing season since Favre's arrival in 1992.
Of course, Favre has exacerbated matters by trying to overcompensate for the substantial losses that left him with not much of a supporting cast. His 24 interceptions are a career high, and his 73.1 passer rating is threatening his single-season nadir of 72.2 in 1993.
Favre has been his own worst enemy in the last eight games, in which his interceptions (16) are more than triple that of his touchdowns (five). His passer rating in the span is an abysmal 58.1.
He's in the throes of his first three-game streak without a TD pass and is coming off the utter embarrassment of a 48-3 loss at Baltimore on Monday. Sherman pulled a struggling Favre at the end of the third quarter in favor of rookie heir apparent Aaron Rodgers.
Now, at age 36, Favre must decide whether it would be worth his time to jump off the tractor in a few months if there's no assurances a youth-laden team can quickly turn it around.
"What direction they want to go in next year, what direction I want to go in, we'll cross that bridge when the off-season comes," Favre acknowledged.
SERIES HISTORY: 171st meeting, dating to 1921. The Bears lead the series 86-78-6, which includes a 33-14 victory over Green Bay at Chicago in the 1941 Western Division playoff, the teams' only postseason meeting. The old rivals are colliding only three weeks after the Bears prevailed 19-7 at Soldier Field, ending the Packers' 11-game winning streak in Illinois. The Bears have won two of the last three games against the Packers with Lovie Smith as coach, including a 21-10 victory at Green Bay in Week 2 last season.
Players learned of how the voting turned out after they returned from practice in the late afternoon Wednesday.
"You kind of see how it played out. If you're having a good year, chances are your guys are going to go," veteran kicker Ryan Longwell said. "We've had good years around here where a lot of guys have gone. But this isn't one of them. I'm not totally surprised."
Ironically, four ex-Packers earned spots on the NFC team: QB Matt Hasselbeck (Seattle), FS Darren Sharper (Minnesota), G Mike Wahle (Carolina) and P Josh Bidwell (Tampa Bay).
Longwell was overjoyed about the first-time selection of best friend Bidwell, who was with the Packers from 1999 to 2003.
"He called me 30 seconds after he found out this morning and said, ‘We got it.' So, it's pretty exciting. It couldn't happen to a better guy," Longwell said.
Barnett has led the team in tackles every game this season. His lowest output was eight in the Week 2 loss to Cleveland.
The 1998 Saints were the last team to go to such extremes.
Sander was able to kick the rest of the game. However, Longwell said Sander was experiencing considerable soreness Wednesday, and he didn't practice.
Sander is listed as questionable for the upcoming game.
Consequently, Longwell punted in practice and is prepared to handle those duties if the team doesn't sign a free agent in the next couple days.
Longwell, a ninth-year pro, handled the dual role his last three years at the University of California. He earned All-Pac 10 first-team honors as a punter during his senior season.
"Not many people know that my scholarship was to punt there," Longwell said. "It will take a little to get used to, but I hit some good ones today. If worst-case scenario I need to, I could get us through, for sure."
Longwell incorporates some punting reps into his practice routine on Fridays.
He's punted four times as a pro in games, the last two occurring in 2003 in quick-kick situations. Longwell filled in for an injured Louie Aguiar in a game in 1999.
"I've done it enough to be comfortable with it," Longwell said.
Longwell is more concerned about the holding situation for his kicks. Sander has been his holder since the start of the season, and the two have jelled the last two months after some initial struggles.
Rookie QB Aaron Rodgers is the backup holder, but he's taken only a handful of reps in practice.
"It's my knowledge that they want me to come in and play now," Gardner said after practice. "Hopefully, I can get familiar with the offensive game plan and go out there and do something on Sunday, (even) if it's a few plays."
Gardner, a former first-round draft pick of Washington, didn't fit into Carolina's plans after it acquired him from the Redskins in a preseason trade. He had just nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in 10 games before being waived last week.
Gardner, a fifth-year veteran, will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. The Packers view him as not only a short-term stopgap for their injury-depleted receiving corps but also want to look at him for potentially being of service in the long term at split end.
"All I've got is motivation," Gardner said of the final two games. "Right now, I'm just trying to build up all this adrenaline and try to prove myself and show them the receiver I can be."
Gardner has some familiarity with the West Coast offense. Jimmy Raye employed it when he was the offensive coordinator during Gardner's rookie season with the Redskins.
BY THE NUMBERS: 133 - Career-high consecutive pass attempts by Brett Favre in which he hasn't thrown for a touchdown. Favre has gone three straight games without a TD pass for the first time in his 14 years as the team's starter. His last scoring play was a 13-yard pass to TE David Martin late in the first half of the 19-14 loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 27.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Until Brett Favre retires, it bothers me that the retirement talk is a constant theme which is always talked about and always reminded of as opposed to just letting him play the game. I told him, ‘You should be offended when people talk retirement because, physically, you're certainly not there.' And I believe that." - Coach Mike Sherman, speaking Wednesday on the swirling retirement speculation regarding QB Brett Favre.