With Eagles Game, Bears’ Schedule Gets Challenging

Beat and the on Sunday and they will get it. They will also be one step closer to a playoff berth.

“We’re getting to that final stretch of games where every game’s important to whether or not you’re going to make it to the playoffs or not,” quarterback Jay Cutler said.

Chicago could stamp itself as a serious threat in the N.F.C. if it beats the Eagles (7-3) at Soldier Field. The Bears (7-3) are tied with for the N.F.C. North lead but their schedule is about to take a difficult turn after three consecutive games, all victories, against weaker competition.

It is one thing to beat teams that have struggled all year like Detroit, Dallas, Carolina, Buffalo and Minnesota. It does not hurt to face a third-string quarterback, as the Bears did when they pounded Miami, 16-0, on Nov. 18. But things are about to change.

Games against New England, and Green Bay are looming, and Sunday’s game figures to be every bit as difficult.

“If you start looking ahead at it, you’re going to mess yourself up,” Coach Andy Reid said. “The way the league’s done now, for that reason, you can’t look ahead and go, ‘You know what, if we win these two games then we have these two off.’ You can’t do that.

“So you have N.F.C. East games all the way to the end and good teams in between there with Chicago coming up here, and they’re not too shabby at 7-3. So we have to make sure we’re ready to roll.”

The Bears figure to have their hands full with Vick, assuming they can actually get their hands on him.

“Now that he’s throwing the ball so well, it adds a whole other element to it,” linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. “Before, you knew he was going to run so it was like, All right, let’s contain him some.”

If there is a defense that could give him fits, the Bears’ might be one.

“I don’t want to offend anybody else around the league, but this group is a great group of guys who play together, play fast and play hard,” Vick said. “You can tell that they’ve jelled together as a defense and they play with a tremendous amount of confidence.”

The Bears are allowing 290.4 yards per game and rank third over all, second against the run, and they are second with 25 takeaways.

When it comes to scoring, no one is stingier.

The Bears and the Packers have allowed the fewest points in the (146), and after struggling all year to get sacks, they came away with six against Miami, three from Julius Peppers.

“I tip my hat to those guys up front,” safety Danieal Manning said. “Guys are playing disciplined. They’re playing solid football right now.”

But Chicago has not faced a challenge like this. It is not hard to see why the Eagles are 5-0 in games Vick has started and completed. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes with no interceptions. His 191 passes without an interception are a team record to start the season, and his 108.7 passer rating leads the league.

He is delivering M.V.P.-level performances on almost a weekly basis after spending a year and a half in prison for running a ring, and then playing sparingly behind last year.

Vick slowed a bit in last week’s 27-17 win over the Giants with 258 yards and a rushing touchdown. With Atlanta, he was never known for his passing ability. But he is staying in the pocket more and his 62.8 percent completion rate is easily a career high.

But whether Vick is trying to outrun them or trying to beat them with his arm, the Bears like their chances.

“We feel comfortable and confident in the talent we have here,” Tinoisamoa said. “We feel like we match up well. We feel like we have great speed not only from our D-linemen but the back end as well.”

Coach Smith on Firmer Ground as Bears Pile Up Wins

LAKE FOREST, Ill. Not too long ago, Lovie Smith seemed primed to be forced out of Chicago.

Now, that doesn’t seem as likely.

The Bears are tied with for the NFC North lead at 7-3 after winning three straight, and the coach’s position is sure looking more secure.

Smith got a strong endorsement from general manager Jerry Angelo in Miami on Thursday before the Bears blanked the injury-ravaged 16-0.

With six games left, they’ve already matched their victory total from two of the past three seasons and are challenging for their first playoff appearance since the 2006 run.

Meanwhile, a coach who was under scrutiny is making good use of his reprieve.

“It’s been great for Coach,” linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. “He’s taken a lot of flack, a lot of heat.”

Angelo said that heat is unwarranted.

“We’ve seen the same thing we’ve seen every year from Lovie,” he said. “He’s always been a great leader for us. I keep going back to that adversity, those thorns, he continues to create hope and the guys rally around Lovie.

“You can say what you want to say, I’ve read everything that you’ve said, most of it to me is unfair because the guy has really done an outstanding job of keeping the team together. And I think that is critical for a head coach in this league.”

“You can’t minimize that and he doesn’t get enough credit for that,” Angelo added. “We talk about the Cover-2, we talk about sometimes the anemic offense, we talk about a lot of things, but nobody ever says the things that he really brings to the table and he has brought to the table in his whole tenure here and there has to be a lot of emphasis on that because it is a very difficult job.”

With one year and about $5 million left on Smith’s contract, the Bears could have a tough decision to make — particularly if they get to the playoffs.

If they retain him, would they let him go into next season as a lame duck? Or would they give him an extension, knowing it might not go over well with fans?

Many were calling for the dismissal of Angelo and Smith after the Bears went 7-9 last season, but instead of an overhaul at the top, there was what many interpreted as a win-or-else mandate from Ted Phillips.

There were also big changes to the roster and the coaching staff.

The Bears hired offensive coordinator hoping he could get Jay Cutler to cut back on his interceptions and Mike Tice to fix a struggling offensive line. Smith also promoted defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to coordinator, but the biggest moves came in free agency.

The Bears went on a major shopping spree, signing Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers to a six-year deal that guaranteed $42 million and could be worth $91.5 million.

That was the biggest purchase in a haul that also included running back Chester Taylor and blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and ratcheted up the expectations in Chicago.

It also placed more focus on Smith. An 0-4 preseason only increased the heat on him and a 1-3 slide heading into the bye did nothing to cool it.

Yet inside the locker room, Smith has never lacked support.

“We believe in him,” Tinoisamoa said. “We believe in what he says. We believe in how he coaches. We believe it works. We’ve seen it work.”

Particularly the past few weeks.

“We’re making progress, but that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Smith said. “No team has peaked that early in the season, so it takes awhile. We knew the reasons. … There were things that were going on. We stayed the course, but I think each week we have identified problems and tried to fix it, and it’s good to see the results turn out that way.”

The Bears came out of their bye with a more simplified, balanced offense and Cutler is taking less of a pounding. They’re also converting on third downs, something they rarely did in the first seven games, but the schedule is taking a tougher turn.

The recent wins have come against Buffalo, Minnesota and Miami. When they get through with and the on Sunday, the Bears will still be looking at games against New England, the and Green Bay, meaning a run to the playoffs is far from a sure thing.

Even so, the recent developments are promising.

They’ve run the ball 108 times with 90 passes over the past three games, and even though they’re not getting huge chunks on the ground, they’re at least keeping defenses off balance.

Cutler’s 33 sacks lead the league, but with six in the past three games, he’s at least spending less time on the ground.

On third downs, the Bears are 28 of 49 during this run and have moved up from last to 29th.

As for Smith, suddenly, the ground beneath him doesn’t seem as shaky.

“Lovie’s a great coach, a great motivator,” said safety Chris Harris, in his second stint with the Bears. “Guys like playing for him. He’s not one that yells. He’s not one that screams. He talks to you like a man, doesn’t belittle you.”

‘Nightmare’ Vick Up Next for Bears

LAKE FOREST, Ill. If the Chicago Bears find a way to stop quarterback , it could be the confirmation of their status as a contender.

After all, not every defense stops a player putting up MVP-type performances week in and week out. The Bears may need such a feat to impress skeptics who point out that five of their seven wins came over struggling Dallas, Detroit, Buffalo, Carolina and Minnesota, or that a sixth win came over a Miami team using third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen.

Vick has seven starts this season, but the Bears say it’s not silly to think of him as an MVP. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes two years after being released from prison for his role in a ring.

“I’d vote for him,” safety Chris Harris said. “I think some of the things he’s doing are amazing. He doesn’t have one interception all season long.”

It’s Vick’s ability to escape a pass rush and deliver passes accurately or run for big yards that have the Bears defense concerned.

“The crazy thing is, I watched the Washington game (a 59-28 Eagles win), and you go to sleep with nightmares about how you’re going to stop this guy,” said Bears linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. “There are so many challenges and so much talent on their offense.”

While Vick’s scrambling ability worries the Bears, coach Lovie Smith thinks his defensive scheme gives Vick cause for concern.

“We believe in our defense and it’s set up to play guys like him,” Smith said.

The Bears saw the blitz Vick with some success, but like their chances letting him run to them while playing their cover-2 zone.

The onus will fall on Bears defensive ends to keep Vick from getting outside and throwing on the run or taking it upfield.

“Our front seven, really, we’ll need to be disciplined,” Smith said. “We’re saying that each week about being disciplined in your lanes. That will definitely be the case. Of course, he’s a great thrower, but we still feel like for us to have the most success, we need to keep him penned in.”

Vick has faced Smith’s cover-2 defense only one full game, completing 13-of-32 passes for 122 yards with two interception while rushing for 35 yards on six carries in 2005. He came off the bench to run 34 yards on one play in the wildcat against them last season.

The key to the Bears’ pass rush is defensive end Julius Peppers, but defensive end Henry Melton suggested this is something the entire line will have to handle.

“We have a very smart rush,” he said. “All of us can get there. If one guy shoots at him and misses, another guy is going to overlap.”

The Giants had a pass rush good enough to sack Bears quarterback Jay Cutler nine times in a half without blitzing much. So if the Giants couldn’t stop Vick without blitzing, it would appear to be a difficult chore for any defense.

However, the Bears had six sacks against Miami and believe their pass rush is improving.

“We would definitely have to have a pass rush and have guys level-rush and not get behind him to create enough lanes for him to run,” Harris said.

A victory in Sunday’s game is critical to the Bears (7-3), not only to allow them to keep pace with (7-3) in the NFC North chase, but because of a potential wild card. Chicago’s three losses all came against NFC teams, and conference victories are critical in the playoff tiebreaker formula.

The Bears have more conference losses than any NFC team with a winning record.

“With every win here, especially in the conference, it’s going to be huge at the end of the year for seedings and all that,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “So we understand the importance of this game and it’s going to be a big week.”