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Bears lead division, but NFC North presents tough test

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher (54) celebrates with cornerback Tim Jennings after Jenning's interceptilate game sealed Chicago Bears 23-6 victory over

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher (54) celebrates with cornerback Tim Jennings after Jenning's interception late in the game sealed the Chicago Bears 23-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams Sunday September 23, 2012 at Soldier Field. Safety Major Wright (21) is also in on the celebration. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 17, 2012 6:25AM



Some Bears, such as safety Chris Conte, were in airports, making their way to back to Chicago after the bye week.

Others, such as cornerback Tim Jennings, preferred to spend some coveted time with their children
instead of watching other games.

But it’s not like they didn’t know or see parts of what happened in games involving their NFC North rivals Sunday.

The Detroit Lions pulled off a come-from-behind victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Green Bay Packers — led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers — returned to high-scoring form by pummeling the previously unbeaten Houston Texans.

‘‘Our division took a step up,’’ coach Lovie Smith said Monday.

In other words, early-season
notions about the demise of the
Lions (2-3) and Packers (3-3) and the NFC North potentially being a two-team race between the Bears (4-1) and Minnesota Vikings (4-2) should be dismissed.

What happended Sunday told the Bears the NFC North might be the best division in the NFL.

‘‘This division has been tough [in the past], and I just know that this year it is,’’ Smith said after the Bears’ first practice since Wednesday. ‘‘You just look at all of the teams right there and how we compare a little bit outside of the division.’’

Maintaining their lead in the NFC North is the Bears’ new goal. The closeness of the division at the moment is the biggest difference from 2011. Heading into Week 7
last season, the Bears were 3-3 and looking up at the 6-0 Packers and 5-1 Lions. The Vikings, though, were 1-5 and well on their way to an abysmal season.

‘‘You could say that this was a pretty good week [for us],’’ Jennings said. ‘‘Going back home, spending time with the family, moving into first place [after the Vikings lost Sunday to the Washington Redskins].

‘‘Where we’re at, we want to stay there. We know this is going to be a tough test for us. . . . This is by far one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.’’

Maintaining their lead will be difficult for the Bears if the Lions and Packers truly rediscovered what they had going last season in their victories Sunday. The Lions excelled at fourth-quarter comebacks last season, and they did that against the Eagles. The Packers dismantled teams behind Rodgers’ MVP performance last season, and he torched the Texans for six touchdown passes.

‘‘It’s going to come down to the wire,’’ Conte said. ‘‘It’s always tough. Look at a team like Minnesota. They’ve been doing well. They lost [Sunday], but they’ve been
doing great. All of these teams are great teams.’’

The Lions will get the first crack at cutting into the Bears’ lead next week on ‘‘Monday Night Football.’’ While the Lions have multiple problem areas and quarterback Jay Cutler has excelled against them, looking past quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and a loaded, physical defensive line would be a mistake.

The Bears have been waiting for this matchup for some time. It’s the first game between the teams since the Bears’ 37-13 rout of the Lions last Nov. 13, which included some helmet-pulling fisticuffs.

‘‘We’ve been waiting, like I’m sure they’ve been waiting, for this for a long time,’’ Smith said.

‘‘We take it as we need this win to stay on top of our division [and] to try to get where we want to go, and that’s that first-round bye when the playoffs come,’’ Jennings said. ‘‘We need to take care of this one.’’



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