CHICAGO -- Here we go, NFC North fans. We have an honest-to-goodness chase for the division title. It might not be between the teams we originally contemplated, but with seven weeks remaining in the season, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers are tied atop the division with 6-3 records.
I'm sure there are some people who still consider the Bears a house of cards, even after a relatively convincing 27-13 victory Sunday over the Minnesota Vikings. I was in that camp early this season. But there comes a point in a season when aesthetics don't matter and future projections are irrelevant. Folks, we're there.
"It's a race now," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. "It's definitely a race. And we're going to make this race a hard one for Green Bay."
No matter what you say about the Bears' season to this point -- who they've beat, how they've done it and what it means -- they have won six of their first nine games. They're the only NFC North team with an undefeated division record (3-0), an important factor in tiebreakers, and have already defeated the Packers once.
On Sunday, the Bears produced the kind of game that should make NFC North historians bolt upright and take notice. The key factors in the victory were strikingly similar to the way this franchise won games, and advanced once to the Super Bowl, during its best moments of the past decade. Consider:
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz called a balanced game with 34 running plays and 40 dropbacks. (Quarterback Jay Cutler scrambled on five of those passing plays.) Tailbacks Matt Forte and Chester Taylor combined for a modest 102 yards on 33 carries, but the commitment to balance paid dividends in multiple areas. The most important: Cutler completed all seven of his play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information, including the game-clinching 19-yard touchdown to tight end Kellen Davis.
The Bears' defense held the Vikings to one third-down conversion in nine attempts and forced four turnovers. "For our defense, we always want to be the best on third downs and in takeaways," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. Entering Sunday's game, the Bears' defense had caused the NFL's second-most turnovers and had the fifth-best third-down conversion rate. Those statistics illustrate what we mean when we label a team "opportunistic." The Bears' defense is getting it done consistently when it counts. Sunday's only touchdown came on what safety Chris Harris admitted was a coverage miscue that left Vikings receiver Percy Harvin open for a 53-yard touchdown reception.
Devin Hester is officially back. The Bears reinserted him as their full-time kickoff returner Sunday and used him in what I consider an ideal package, maximizing his touches on special teams and using him for some specifically-scripted plays of offense. The results were tremendous for Hester, who already this season had returned two punts for touchdowns. On Sunday, he had a 19-yard touchdown reception, a 68-yard kickoff return and a 42-yard punt return. Overall, Hester accumulated 185 all-purpose yards on eight total touches. And oh, by the way: The Bears' average drive started at their 44-yard line.
So when you ask how the Bears are 6-3, therein lies your answer, more or less. They've developed a balanced offense, their defense has won the key plays of most games and the most feared special teams playmaker in the game has resurrected himself.
"We know what we are and what we can be," Urlacher said.
We also should know by now what the Vikings are: One of the most expensive flops in NFL history, at least to this point. The Vikings will pay their star-studded roster more than $150 million this season for what sure looks like a losing season. Some players sounded the never-quit siren in the postgame locker room -- "We can still make 10-6," defensive end Jared Allen said -- but quarterback Brett Favre sure seemed resigned to missing the playoffs in what appears to be his final NFL season.
Asked if he thought the Vikings could play in the 2010 postseason, Favre said: "I have no idea. If I had to gauge today, I would say no. ... That's probably a better guess than us making the playoffs. That's just being honest."
Owner Zygi Wilf told ESPN's Ed Werder that he has no plans to fire coach Brad Childress, setting up a pretty irrelevant final seven games for the Vikings. Unless something changes dramatically, starting with next Sunday's home matchup with the Packers, the Vikings will be spectators in the NFC North title race with a team that could undergo major personnel turnover this offseason.
I can't say I expected the Bears to be in better position than the Vikings at this point of the season; attached to a lie detector, many of their fans might agree. But we all need to accept that the Bears have pushed themselves to the front of the NFC North line. The process reminds me a bit of those popcorn machines where the kernels are flying randomly around the jar. Eventually, the popped corn consumes too much space, the movement slows down and you can finally see what's happened.
We got our first glimpse Sunday.
"November is where you try to separate yourself," Harris said. "That's when the playoff push begins. Nobody really remembers what you do in September and October. They remember what you did in November and December, and now we're right in the thick of things. We're 6-3 and in first place and we plan on staying there."