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Bears serve notice to underperforming NFC North rivals

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Updated: September 23, 2013 11:00AM

PITTSBURGH — The anticipation of the Bears being an improved team this season is enhanced by the possibility that their division rivals might be worse.

The Packers (1-2) faded against the Bengals on Sunday in Cincinnati and lost 34-30. Their only victory is over the winless Redskins.

The Vikings (0-3), already vanquished at Soldier Field, lost to the Browns at home. Their only ray of hope is that they almost beat the Bears.

The Lions (2-1) were just OK in a 27-20 victory over the Redskins in D.C. to improve. Their victories came against the winless Vikings and Redskins.

In fact, the Bears are the only team in the NFC North to beat an opponent that isn’t winless. They beat the visiting Bengals 24-21 and even though that wasn’t a masterpiece, in the NFC North, it’s looking more impressive with every game.

The Bears’ early success — and the role of first-year coach Marc Trestman as the difference-maker — had Bears fans getting a little ahead of themselves Sunday. If the Bears could beat the Steelers and Lions on the road, they would not only be 4-0 after next week, but would hold a two-game lead in the division with 12 remaining.

Too early for magic numbers? No doubt about it. The Vikings look like they’re in for a tough season. But the Lions have enough talent to win games by mistake. And while Trestman vs. Packers’ defensive coordinator Dom Capers looks like much more of a fair fight than it has been in recent years, the Packers still rule the NFC until somebody proves otherwise.

The Bears weren’t going to prove themselves worthy in one game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at home, the Steelers still are a shell of the Super Bowl contender they once were. But on the big stage of a nationally televised game, the Lions, Vikings and Packers had to take notice of the Bears’ near-perfect first quarter, when they took a 17-0 lead.

It wasn’t just what they did, but how they did it. This wasn’t just a fortuitous burst of dominance. It was a flurry of good football that is hardly coincidental. To wit:

◆ The Bears opened the game with a 13-play, 51-yard drive that netted only a field goal, but accomplished their goal of staying clean and preventing the Heinz Field crowd from impacting the game.

◆ Jay Cutler threw a nine-yard pass to Brandon Marshall to set up a second-and-short that was converted. The Bears had four first downs on their opening drive and were not stopped until Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu made a signature play to blow up a wide-receiver screen. The Bears settled for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.

◆ While the offense was hardly a well-oiled machine on its first drive, it at least was moving in that direction. There were no pre-snap penalties or obvious missed assignments. On third-and-nine from the Steelers’ 16 on the Bears’ second possession, Matt Forte used a key block from Marshall for an 11-yard gain on a screen pass.

◆ That set up a first-and-goal at the 5 — where guard Matt Slauson made a key block on Forte’s five-yard touchdown that made it 10-0. A pulling guard making a play near the goal line? Stop the presses — the Bears have an offense.

◆ The Bears were at it again with fundamental football when rookies Jordan Mills and Kyle Long executed blocks to help spring Matt Forte on a magnificent 55-yard run that set up another touchdown.

There was still a long way to go, But in that one quarter the Bears made a statement. Whether they are ready for prime time or not, they know how to play good football. Surely the Lions, Vikings and Packers took notice.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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