Julius Peppers a good fit in Chicago

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Ah, what could have been.

After last season, monstrous and athletic defensive end Julius Peppers became a free agent. One of the many teams lusting after the 6-foot-7, 283-pounder was the New England Patriots.

How would Peppers have looked in a Patriots uniform, with New England taking advantage of his versatility to line him up at various spots on the field, turning him loose to rush the passer, watching him chase down a running back or dropping him back in coverage?

Such thoughts no doubt had New England coach Bill Belichick salivating at the prospect of unleashing such a skillful and strong defensive weapon on the opposition.

Peppers, meanwhile, was doing his due diligence as he approached free agency for the first time after spending his first eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

And he chose Chicago for several reasons, not the least of which was the six-year, $91.5 million contract the Bears lavished upon him.

On Sunday, Peppers will be lining up against the Patriots as the Bears (9-3) host New England (10-2) at Soldier Field.

"I thought about a lot of teams, including New England," the 30-year-old Peppers said Wednesday via a conference call. "At that point of free agency you have to look at all the options, look at the better franchises. I definitely looked into it a little bit, playing for those guys."

But the Bears' scheme, coaches and, of course, money lured him to Chicago. Peppers counts himself fortunate to be in the Windy City.

"Everything has been going great, actually, personally and professionally," he said. "It was a big decision for me and I think I picked the perfect place."

While Peppers wasn't a dominant force at the outset of the season, at least not if you put stock in sack and forced-fumble totals, he was a big piece of the Chicago defense. Lately, he has been racking up impressive stats. He enters the game against the Patriots with seven sacks (five in his past three games), three forced fumbles, one interception and five passes defensed.

Not coincidentally, the Bears, who also have gotten some consistency from the sometimes-erratic quarterback Jay Cutler, are leading the NFC North and riding a five-game winning streak.

Chicago coach Lovie Smith is thrilled that the Bears made contact with Peppers at 12:01 a.m. on the first day teams were able to talk to free agents.

"You need an impact player [on defense], especially for us, because everything we do defensively starts up front. That's exactly what he has been for us, an impact player," Smith said.

"He's an all-down player. He can rush the passer. He plays the run as hard as he does the pass. He's a legitimate pass rusher but he has the speed to get to the outside [to pursue running backs]. He was elected a captain for a reason. He comes to work with his lunch pail. I couldn't be more pleased.

"No doubt, he makes the defense better. We've had great football players here, but this is a special player we're talking about," Smith said.

Peppers was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his three-sack performance in a 16-0 win at Miami on Nov. 18, and picked up NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in November. Since entering the league in 2002, Peppers has racked up 88 sacks, with only Dwight Freeney and Jason Taylor, each with 92, having more over that span.

Belichick couldn't contain his enthusiasm and respect for Peppers at his media briefing on Wednesday.

"He's not a one-man band but you have to account for him on every play," Belichick said. "He has quickness, speed, strength, length. He's just a real good player."

Accounting for Peppers may mean double-teaming him, which could leave other talented Bears defensive linemen more opportunities to make plays. And if the Patriots put just one man on him, Peppers could turn into a disruptive one-man band.

Peppers' versatility had Belichick, the former defensive coach, envisioning what could have been had Peppers elected to join the Patriots, though the coach didn't address that possibility directly.

"You could put him anywhere on the field," Belichick said. "He can play on the front line, he could play linebacker. He could play strong safety. He could play anywhere on the defensive line. He's tall. Richard Seymour was tall and he played there. Put him out at tight end, make a left tackle out of him. I wouldn't want to tackle him if he was carrying the ball. He's a great player."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady certainly will have to account for Peppers.

"He's one of the best in the league. He's big, strong, fast, athletic. He's got seven sacks, wreaking havoc," Brady said.

The number of sacks, though, can be somewhat misleading. A player of Peppers' caliber can occupy two or three offensive players, making it easier for teammates to make big plays. In the Bears' case, that means linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, among others.

The Patriots held Peppers without a sack in a 20-10 win over the Panthers last season.

"I guess if you look at numbers, I didn't have a sack, but I thought I had a decent game," he said.

Peppers plans on playing another solid game Sunday, aware that his team will be facing a stern test.

"We're going to be playing a very good football team that is playing well," he said. "It's a huge challenge for us to see where we are as a football team, to see how well we can play against a team like the New England Patriots that is playing as well as they are."

That challenge works both ways, including the Patriots' challenge to neutralize Julius Peppers.

Steven Krasner is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.