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Bears riding rejuvenated defense to top of NFC North

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The NFC North was only supposed to have room for two at the top: Green Bay and Minnesota.

With Aaron Rodgers leading a dynamic passing attack, the Packers had the look of a Super Bowl contender. With Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and a stingy defense, the Vikings would be in the postseason hunt again.

The Chicago Bears? Yeah, they had a nice offseason, picking up defensive end Julius Peppers and running back Chester Taylor. And, sure, the hiring of offensive coordinator Mike Martz would probably result in a little better production from quarterback Jay Cutler.

But contenders for the division title? Not with that porous offensive line and certainly not with the Packers and Vikings needing to be pushed out of the way.

Say hello to the 4-1 Bears, who after Sunday's 23-6 victory against the Carolina Panthers are all alone in first place in the NFC North.

Meanwhile, the Packers are dealing with a growing list of injuries to key players. Rodgers has a concussion that could sideline him for at least one game, tight end Jermichael Finley (knee) might be out for three to six weeks, linebacker Nick Barnett (wrist) could be lost for the rest of the season, running back Ryan Grant (ankle) has been lost for the year, and linebacker Clay Matthews is dealing with a sore hamstring.

The Vikings hope that acquiring Randy Moss will put some life into their offense, but they still have a potentially major distraction with the NFL's investigation into inappropriate text messages that Favre allegedly sent to a former female employee of his former team, the New York Jets.

The Bears, who are 2-0 in the division, also are heading into a favorable stretch in their schedule. They're at home the next two weeks against Seattle and Washington, and then have a bye before taking on the winless Buffalo Bills in Toronto.

That sets up the real possibility that the Bears could be 7-1 or 6-2 by midseason, which would give them a running start through a brutal second half of the schedule that includes games against the Vikings (twice), Dolphins, Eagles, Patriots, Jets and Packers.

"We need to take advantage of the games that we have," linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. "The schedule's favorable for us. We're not going to take any team for granted, but then again we know we need to get ahead because we've got a long winter ahead of us."

Maybe the offense won't scare many opponents, but the defense sure can. Peppers has had a tremendous impact, making the Bears' decision-makers look like geniuses for the organization's uncharacteristically massive expenditure to acquire the former Panther in free agency. Linebacker Brian Urlacher, returning from a wrist injury that sidelined him for almost all of the 2009 season, is having a career year. He and Lance Briggs form what arguably is the best linebacking pair in the NFL.

The Bears have been flexing their defensive muscle all season, but never was it more apparent than Sunday. With Cutler sidelined with a concussion he suffered against the Giants in Week 4, the offense was brutally inept in the unsure hands of Todd Collins, a career backup making his first start since 2007. No problem. The defense took control against the winless Panthers, who also suffered with bad quarterback play. The difference, Chicago ran the ball much better.

Cutler is expected to return this week, but the defense fully intends to carry the brunt of the load the rest of the way.

"We want the onus to be on us," nose tackle Anthony Adams said. "If the opponent doesn't score, then we win. And that's how we look at it every time we step on the field. If we get a takeaway and we score ourselves and it's 7-0, we keep them from scoring and we win the game."

The defense didn't produce any points against Carolina. However, it did have a play for the ages when Peppers, after being blocked by tackle Geoff Schwartz while jumping, used both hands to knock a Jimmy Clausen pass high into the air. Then, Peppers fell to his knees, and he and Clausen went for the ball as it sailed back to the ground. Clausen missed, Peppers caught it just above the grass for an interception. A perfect way to celebrate his "homecoming," which many fans acknowledged by booing him.

"You don't see that unless you're playing on PlayStation," Adams said. "Stuff like that is freakish."

When a reporter asked Tinoisamoa what dimension Peppers brings to the defense, he looked up and said, "What dimension? He's like out of this world. You can't put him on the same level as anybody else."

Of course, that often was said about Urlacher earlier in his career. People again are marveling at his play. Urlacher's wrist injury allowed him to spend only half a game on the field a year ago. After a full season of rest, the 32-year-old Urlacher is feeling rejuvenated in the attack-oriented scheme that Rod Marinelli installed when he became the defensive coordinator in the offseason.

"This defense allows me to get downhill, which I think helps everyone," he said. "Just getting in the backfield and flying to the football."

They've got answers

» The Giants, because anticipating the Texans would go with shorter pass drops to prevent a repeat of the sack-fest the Bears helped create with Jay Cutler's seven-step drops, they had their pass-rushers get their hands up against Matt Schaub. Besides sacking him three times in a 34-10 victory, they also batted down four passes.

» The Colts, because they insisted their defensive troubles were fixable, and they demonstrated as much by holding the Chiefs to three field goals and putting the first blemish on Kansas City's record. The Colts managed to generate an effective pass rush against Matt Cassel (despite having only one sack to show for it), new safety Aaron Francisco was solid, and the run defense tightened up after the first quarter.

» The Cardinals, because their defense responded to four weeks of heavy criticism by generating four turnovers, including three in the fourth quarter, that were the difference in a stunning, 30-20 victory over the Saints. Their post-Kurt Warner quarterback disaster is far from resolved, but Max Hall was able to survive some rookie moments and allow the defense to carry the day.

They've got questions

» The Packers, because they are simply losing too many key people to injury to be the top contender they were expected to be entering the season.

» The Rams, because without Mark Clayton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Lions, their passing game is likely to suffer greatly. Clayton instantly became the Rams' most effective receiver when he arrived just before the start of the season in a trade with Baltimore. Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford is talented enough to overcome the setback, but it won't be easy and it could take some time.

» The Broncos, because having the worst running game in the NFL does more to damage their fortunes than having the best passing game does to help them. Predictably, their inability to get anywhere on the ground made them no match for the physical offense and defense of the Ravens. In addition, the Broncos have a lengthy injury list.

Observation points

» Vince Young's numbers against Dallas hardly paint the picture of an explosive passing game, but the Tennessee quarterback maximized every bit of his 12-for-25, 173-yard, two-touchdown performance. Young was throwing downfield and when he didn't connect on long gains, such as a 52-yarder to Kenny Britt and a 24-yard touchdown to Nate Washington, he drew pass-interference penalties of 35 and 13 yards. As the Titans proved with their 34-27 victory, they can win with the combination of Young making enough plays and Chris Johnson having a typically dominant performance (131 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries).

» OK, so the opponent was the 0-5 49ers. It still was a remarkable demonstration of character that Kevin Kolb rallied from the humiliation of losing his starting quarterback job with the Eagles after a half of action in the season-opener with a strong showing in a return to the No. 1 job while Michael Vick is sidelined. Kolb had some shaky moments, but mostly played well while running an aggressive game plan. He was accurate, decisive and even showed some nimbleness in escaping pressure to make a touchdown throw that would make Vick proud.

» The Raiders have made noticeable red-zone improvement since producing only three touchdowns in 13 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line through the first three games. In Week 4, they were three-for-three in a loss to Houston, and on Sunday they were two-for-three in beating San Diego.

» It's hard to envision Clausen becoming the Panthers', or anyone's, franchise quarterback of the future or to even understand why he should be the starter of the present. Panthers fans couldn't have been encouraged to hear the rookie say -- after a 9-for-22, 61-yard, one-interception, no-touchdown, five-sack performance that got him replaced by Matt Moore on Sunday -- the following: "It was definitely not the worst day I've ever had. I've had worse."

» I'm still not sure what to make of the Jaguars. Sure, they've won two games in a row, scoring 30-plus points in each. Sure, their 3-2 record puts them very much in contention in the surprisingly competitive AFC South. But on Sunday, they won a game they easily could have lost. Given that the opponent was lowly Buffalo, it seems to say less about Jacksonville's resilience than it does about the ineptitude of the 0-5 Bills. In fact, several hours after the game, a frustrated member of the Bills' front office shook his head while lamenting the fact that the team allowed itself to be beaten by Jaguars quarterback David Garrard.

Four intriguing Week 6 matchups

**New Orleans at Tampa Bay:** We know the Saints aren't performing like the team that won the Super Bowl, but just how far have they fallen? Sunday's disaster in the desert is a strong indication that Drew Brees and his teammates might very well have lost their magic touch. But this NFC South game should be even more revealing, while also providing an indication of just how seriously we should take the surging Buccaneers.

**Atlanta at Philadelphia:** This is clearly a much sexier game if Vick starts against his former team. If he doesn't, it still has the makings of a compelling matchup between two of the stronger teams in the wide-open NFC. OK, it's a wide-open league, but determining the best team in the NFC seems a little more challenging than doing so in the AFC. Many could be inclined to give that distinction to the winner of this game.

**Baltimore at New England:** The timing couldn't be better for the Patriots to show just how much -- or how little -- they'll miss Randy Moss, because this is the same defense that overpowered them in the playoffs last January. Moss didn't do a whole lot in that game, but neither did anyone else in a Patriot uniform. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots' vulnerable secondary holds up against a revitalized Ravens passing attack, and whether Tom Brady has enough help in his Moss-less supporting cast to overcome Baltimore's defensive challenges.

**Cleveland at Pittsburgh:**Ben Roethlisberger's first game back from his suspension is enough to make this game compelling. How much, if any, rust will he show and is he ready to deal with Rob Ryan's blitzing defense? Otherwise, it's hard to imagine the Steelers' defense not having a field day against a team whose quarterbacks can't stay healthy.

» Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci

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