LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — Lance Briggs wasn’t sidestepping the topic.
He realizes the spotlight will be a little brighter, the hype will be turned up an extra notch or two, and that if the Chicago Bears really want to show how serious a contender they are, this is their chance.
That’s because the Houston Texans visit Soldier Field on Sunday night in a marquee matchup in prime time.
“It’s the perfect situation, a great Sunday night on a big stage,” said Briggs, the Bears’ Pro Bowl linebacker. “We’re all fired up about it.”
Both teams are 7-1 and in first place, with the Bears leading the NFC North and the Texans atop the AFC South, so it’s not hard to see why they’d be pumped for this one.
“Every game is a big game, especially when you’re winning like we are,” Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “These are really important games for us. They can, boom, make your season.”
The similarities — and contrasts — between these teams are hard to ignore. Start with the fact that both lost to Green Bay and keep going from there.
They each boast dominant defenses, with the Bears sixth overall and the Texans third, and they’re tied for third with 25 sacks along with the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks. Chicago’s has been getting the publicity this week. Houston’s seems overshadowed.
Either way, what they’re doing is impressive.
Texans And Bears Set To Collide
No team has as many takeaways as Chicago with 28, and none has been better at hanging onto the ball than Houston with a league-low six turnovers, none the past two games.
“These guys are exceptional,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “They never give up on a play. If you catch a slant or something, and you’re 7 and 8, 15 yards down the field, they’re coming behind you to poke it out. Obviously, we’ve been good at protecting it but they’re the best at getting it out. We pay attention to it all the time. We better pay special attention to it this week.”
The Bears boast a defensive player of the year in Charles Tillman, the league leader with seven forced fumbles — four last week against Tennessee.
So do the Texans in J.J. Watt, the league leader with 10½ sacks in his second season.
Both teams have elite running backs (Matt Forte for Chicago, Arian Foster for Houston) and talented quarterbacks (Jay Cutler, Matt Schaub). They’ll be throwing to star receivers who figured to be going against top cornerbacks, with the Bears’ Brandon Marshall (second in the league with 797 yards) matched against Jonathan Joseph and the Texans’ Andre Johnson with Tillman or Tim Jennings.
One thing that doesn’t bode well for the Bears? Their offensive line going against the Texans’ front, particularly Watt.
If he’s not taking down the quarterback, he’s reaching up to bat passes. He’s broken up 10 already, and when he looks at the Bears, it’s not hard to envision what could happen.
“I see opportunities for sacks against every offensive line,” Watt said. “I obviously watched the film. You see the opportunities. You get excited.”
The Bears understand they’ll have their hands full, that at 6-foot-5, 295 pounds and with a relentless approach, he’s the complete package.
Just ask Gabe Carimi, the Bears’ right tackle who was a teammate of Watt at Wisconsin.
“He’s a relentless guy,” Carimi said. “He’s a hard worker. That’s who he is.”
The best way to counter him?
“Hit him low so he doesn’t want to jump up high,” Carimi said. “That’s the only way. That’s what offensive linemen are taught across the league.”
But Watt is unlike anyone the Bears have faced. And he’ll come at them from all angles.
“He’s very long, he’s very tall,” offensive coordinator Mike Tice said. “He uses his arms well, he uses his leverage extremely well. He poses a challenge, and he lines up in different places, so he’s going to take turns going up and down the line, trying to make plays on us, and we have to be up to the challenge and hopefully we put in the right protection schemes that are going to take into account that. But, at the same time, we don’t always know – even in base or 3-4 – where he’s lining up all the time.”
The Texans, of course, figure to have their hands full with a defense that’s been getting big contributions up and down the line and in the secondary. Core players such as Julius Peppers, Briggs and Tillman have shown no signs of aging even though they’re in their 30s, and Brian Urlacher is coming off his best game after being slowed by a knee injury. He returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown, forced a fumble and recovered one last week in a 51-20 romp at Tennessee.
Even the offense could cause problems if it finally clicks the way the Bears envisioned, particularly with Cutler and Marshall connecting.
“He can make every throw,” Houston safety Glover Quin said. “He has a big arm. He can make every throw and when he’s on he’s on. Him and Brandon Marshall they’ve been playing together for a while. They know each other. They understand each other. He’s a tough guy. He gets hit. He gets back up and he comes back and makes the next throw. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got good coverage because he can put the ball where he wants to.”