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Defense does it for Bears

MINNEAPOLIS -- There's been some debate this September about who owns the best defense in the National Football League. Baltimore has its supporters. So does Jacksonville. San Diego earns some votes.

Forget 'em. With apologies to Ray Lewis, Marcus Stroud and Shawne Merriman, the debate is over.

Give the Slobberknocker Award for the most tenacious D to the Chicago Bears. Lining up opposite these guys is like lining up opposite a firing squad. Odds of survival are slim.

The Bears don't simply run to the football. They take the bullet train. Big holes and expectant big plays evaporate. Even on a Sunday when Chicago missed an unusual number of tackles, it still never suffered a serious breakdown.

Understand this: last year people wondered aloud whether the 2005 Bears defense was better than the legendary '85 Bears defense. But neither unit began the season like this.

In '85, the Bears gave up 59 points in their first three games. In '05, the Bears gave up 39 points. This year, after opening with two of three on the road, the result is 23 points -- including just one offensive touchdown -- and less than 800 total yards.

But shutting out weak sister Green Bay and holding weaker sister Detroit to seven points is one thing. Putting the clamps on newly toughened Minnesota in a manic Metrodome with the NFC North lead on the line -- that's an accomplishment.

Chicago's 19-16 escape of the Vikings was a throwback to the black-and-blue division days (only indoors), and was primarily earned by the guys who do the tackling. The Bears' surprisingly productive offense in weeks one and two was replaced by the sputtering unit from last season, so this was D Day for Chicago.

On a day when quarterback Rex Grossman played more like the shaky dude who spent all August looking over his shoulder at Brian Griese than the golden boy who was leading the NFL in pass efficiency, it was Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown, Nathan Vasher & Co. to the rescue.

Not only did Chicago's defense keep the Vikings' offense out of the end zone, it took the game away from Minnesota when it absolutely had to. Credit defensive tackle Tommie Harris' powers of observation for that.

Harris was crouched in his stance, scrutinizing the offensive guard in front of him for a clue about the upcoming play. It was third-and-eight for the Vikings, and it was late. Minnesota was up 16-12 and trying to run out the clock on a blunt-force upset of the Bears.

"It was win-or-lose time right there," Harris said. "Now or never."

Harris looked at the guard and saw him "sitting light" in his stance. That told him that the snap was not going to result in a drive-blocking collision. He suspected a pull-out and trap block, and he was right.

With more quickness than a 295-pound man should possess, Harris knifed through the void left by the pulling guard and into the backfield. An instant after quarterback Brad Johnson laid the ball in the belly of running back Chester Taylor, Harris lunged and poked it free.

There, suddenly, was the game, lying on the fake grass.

"I seen the ball, but I couldn't move," Harris said. "Somebody was lying on top of me. I was just hoping somebody my color would fall on it."

Linemate Adewale Ogunleye was the guy in the white shirt who fell on the football, reviving Chicago's fleeting hopes. The Bears had the ball at the Minnesota 37 with 3:25 left -- and if ever an offense needed a short field to work with, this was it.

Grossman, who spent much of the game throwing unwise passes off his back foot, had his chance at redemption.

He threw two interceptions and should have had a couple more picked off. His lollipop of a pass for Thomas Jones on the first play of the fourth quarter was returned seven leisurely yards for a touchdown by Antoine Winfield, and at that point it looked like the Vikings had the only touchdown they needed to win this game.

"I felt really bad about putting the team in a bad position," Grossman said. "The defense stuck with it."

Given a final chance to win the game, Grossman came through. After playing brilliantly as a front-running quarterback and never facing a deficit the first two weeks, it was time to see whether the 25-year-old had the poise to win the hard way.

He did. Grossman's biggest play was sticking a third-and-eight throw into the gut of Muhsin Muhammad for an 11-yard gain and a first down, setting the stage for the game-winner two plays later.

That play was a relative gift, with Minnesota apparently never suspecting third wideout Rashied Davis of being the money man in that pressure situation. Davis ran a post out of the slot, slipping easily behind Ronyell Whitaker for a wide-open touchdown with 1:53 left.

"Rex didn't have his best game," Urlacher said. "But he came through when he had to."

Minnesota had a final chance to tie or win, but against the Bears D it wasn't a very fair fight. The Vikings went four-and-out -- capped by an odd call on fourth-and-two, with Johnson lofting a low-percentage deep ball for Troy Williamson -- and the game was over.

It capped a day of strange sights in the Metrodome.

Like a feminine Viking mascot. And a he-man defense in purple.

Minnesota's resident tough-guy mascot, who stalks the sidelines in animal-fur clothing and biker beard, got in touch with his girl-in-hotpants side Sunday. During the break between the first and second quarters he shook a pair of glittery gold pompons and gyrated like a girlie man, doing his best I-feel-pretty routine. When he was done he blew kisses to the fans.

It was, to say the least, not the kind of maneuvering you're accustomed to seeing from someone normally associated with pillaging and ransacking.

But perhaps the Viking dude was freed up from tough-guy duty because of the startlingly studly defense that has returned as the calling card of Vikings football.

This is a franchise that really hasn't been a defense-first operation since the days of Bud Grant and Metropolitan Stadium. That didn't figure to change when the Vikings hired Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress as their new coach this past offseason.

But so far Minnesota is all about the D. Coordinator Mike Tomlin is four years younger than starting quarterback Brad Johnson, but the version of Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense he brought with him from the Buccaneers is working.

For the first time in 10 years, the Vikings have held their first three opponents to fewer than 20 points. Of course, Minnesota has scored fewer than 20 in all three games as well, but that isn't the death sentence it was under the previous administration. With Mike Tice wearing the headset, the Vikings were 0-21 when scoring fewer than 20.

Now, at 2-1, low-scoring games don't look so bad for Vikings fans.

But you'd better pitch a shutout if you're playing the best defense in the National Football League. Because your offense isn't going to get anywhere against the Bears.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.