Houston Texans (7-1) at Chicago Bears (7-1)
1. See you again ... in February?
You likely have read or heard this week references to this game being a potential preview of Super Bowl XLVII, set for Feb. 3 in New Orleans. There certainly is fuel for that theory. With the exception of the unbeaten Falcons, these two teams have the best records in the NFL.
The Bears, who have won six games in a row, rank No. 1 in the league in scoring differential (plus 116) and are winning by an average of 14.5 points. They aren't just beating their opponents; they're pummeling them. They won by a whopping 38 points at Jacksonville in Week 5 and by 31 points at Tennessee last Sunday.
The Texans have the second-best scoring differential (plus 100), have beaten two AFC division leaders (Baltimore and Denver), and have won by some pretty lopsided scores themselves. They beat the Ravens by 30 points, the Titans by 24, and the Dolphins and Jaguars by 20 each. Houston also has been a ball hog, owning a league-best average time of possession (35 minutes and 13 seconds).
The Packers are the only team to beat the Bears and Texans. They beat Chicago, 23-10, at Green Bay in Week 2 and trounced the Texans, 42-24, in Week 6 at Houston, a game where Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 338 yards and six touchdowns.
Defense has been a hallmark for both Houston and Chicago. The Bears have amassed 25 sacks, including nine in their last two games, and they had not allowed an individual 100-yard rushing performance until Tennessee's Chris Johnson broke an 80-yard run last Sunday to cap a 141-yard performance. The Texans rank third in the league in total defense (second against the rush, fourth against the pass) and are the only NFL team to have not allowed a rushing touchdown this season.
"I think we want to be known as the best defense in the NFL," said Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who leads the league with 10.5 sacks and has deflected 10 passes. "The Bears are one of the best defenses in the NFL right now, so it's an opportunity for us to go head-to-head on a stage. Obviously, we won't be going head-to-head directly, but we will have an opportunity to show the world what we're about."
2. Beware the Peanut
Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman seems to have this turnover thing figured out. He dislodged the ball from Tennessee players four times last Sunday, the four forced fumbles raising his career total to 36 since he came into the league in 2003 as a second-round draft pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette. Tillman surpassed teammate Julius Peppers and Colts end Dwight Freeney in most forced fumbles since '03; only Colts end Robert Mathis has forced more fumbles since then.
"Tillman is always knocking balls out," Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson told reporters. "You just have to when you catch it, just make sure you've got it wrapped up."
The NFL's defensive player of the month in October, Tillman returned two interceptions for touchdowns -- one in Week 4 against Dallas and another in Week 5 against Jacksonville. He also all but eliminated Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson during a Week 7 victory in Detroit despite giving up two inches in height to "Megatron."
Overall, Chicago's opportunistic defense may be more dominant than the famed 1985 Bears' unit, which some have called the best defense in the history of the NFL.
The Bears lead the league with 28 takeaways (17 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries) and have the No. 1 turnover differential (plus 16). Cornerback Tim Jennings has intercepted six passes, safety Major Wright has three interceptions and each player has returned a pick for a touchdown. Chicago's defense has scored eight touchdowns -- only three fewer than Jacksonville's offense has scored this season.
The Texans have turned the ball over only six times this season (five interceptions, one fumble), and they have been spotless in that department in their last two games. Still, if I were coach Gary Kubiak, I would have preached ball security all week long.
3. Together again
Introductions almost were in order when Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and Johnson trotted on to the field in the season opener against Miami. That marked the first time Houston's big three offensive players were on the field together since Week 4 of the 2011 season.
A hamstring injury kept Foster off the field early last season. As soon as he returned in Week 4, Johnson suffered a hamstring injury of his own and was sidelined for the next six weeks. In Week 10, Schaub was struck down by a Lisfranc injury that forced him to miss the final six regular season games and Houston's two playoff contests.
Together, Schaub, Foster and Johnson were on the field for only 45 of 1,046 offensive snaps last season -- a mere 4.3 percent. The trio has been intact this season, and what a difference it has made.
The Texans are averaging 29.6 points per game. Only the Patriots (32.8) and are averaging more. Schaub, who has won 10 of his last 11 starts, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,918 yards and 12 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Foster has rushed for 770 yards (first in the AFC) and his 10 rushing touchdowns lead the league. Johnson, who is starting to emerge as a downfield threat again, has caught 42 passes for 562 yards and two TDs.
During a conference call with Houston reporters this week, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was asked the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of the Texans offense.
"It's Arian Foster," he replied. "Our number one goal is just to try and stop the run every week. If we can make a team one-dimensional, it plays into our hands a little bit more. They have a lot of great players. Schaub is a smart quarterback. They're good up front, but the number one thing is for us to try and stop the run, and that's every week. It doesn't matter who the running back is."
When coordinator Wade Phillips arrived in Houston last year and installed his 3-4 defense, he switched Barwin from end to outside linebacker. It proved to be a good move. Barwin replaced the injured Mario Williams at weakside linebacker and led the team with 11.5 sacks. This season, Barwin has two sacks, six tackles for losses and 10 quarterback hits. Here's an excerpt from his conversation with SI.com.
You guys have the best record in the AFC. Does that make you the best team in the conference?
Well, that's all we go by, so I think it does. But it's only halfway through the season, so there's still a lot more football to be played.
What's the one thing that has surprised you most about this season?
I don't think I can say that I'm surprised. Going into the offseason, we knew we had a good team. I think we were confident in the (new) guys we brought in. I think the stability here is kind of why we're doing what we're doing. We believe in each other and we thought we would have a very good year.
What makes Wade Phillips' defense so successful?
The first thing is the confidence he has in his scheme. That rubs off on his players and allows you to be a confident player. Also, I think Wade adapts to the type of players he has, and he tries to put his players in situations where they can do what they're good at.
How is playing outside linebacker instead of end a better fit for you?
It was an adjustment as far as dropping into coverage, but it was the best thing for my career. It got me a few yards away from those tackles -- I also put on a few pounds -- and gave me more room to play in space, which is better for my skill set.
After Mario Williams went to Buffalo in the offseason, did you feel an extra pressure to step up your game?
No, not at all. When Mario got hurt (last season), we said we all had to step up as a team. I actually moved over to his position and had some success. So I was confident I would be fine going into this season just because of what happened the year before, when he was out for 11 games.
How is the defense different without Brian Cushing (out for the season)?
Obviously, he's a great player and an emotional leader for us. You can't replace his kind of tenacity and how hard he plays. But you have to move on when (injuries) happen, pull together as a group and move forward. I think Bradie James and Tim Dobbins have really stepped up, especially Tim Dobbins. He was a backup and a special teams player, and he has come in and played really well the last two weeks.
What is the biggest challenge the Bears offense presents?
For us up front, the challenge every week is to stop the run. So we have to stop (Matt) Forte first. But, obviously, we know (wide receiver) Brandon Marshall is a special player, so we're going to have to try and cut down his touches and what he can do in the game. We played against him when he was at Miami. The first time I went out there to tackle him -- it was on a screen -- I was like, S**t, I didn't think he was this big. You don't face too many receivers with his size.
What would a victory over Chicago say about the Texans?
It would be big for us to beat another good team. Also, winning a big game on the road and a game on the national stage would be good for us to move forward.
Among the four AFC division leaders, the Texans face the most challenging schedule in the second half of the season. They play four teams with a winning record (including Indianapolis twice) and their resolve will be tested with a stretch of three straight road games against Detroit, Tennessee and New England. Here is how their second half of the schedule compares to the other three division leaders in the conference.
The Texans are off to their best start in franchise history and can tie a team record by winning their fourth consecutive road game. The Bears are trying to win seven straight games for the first time since 2006, their Super Bowl season, when they began 7-0.
"Doesn't get any better than this," Bears coach Lovie Smith said in a conference call with Houston reporters. "It's one thing just to be playing during primetime, but to have a great matchup like this. We both think we're pretty good football teams, and we are. The 7-1 records say that we both are. You want to see how you match up with the best."
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall form one of the most dangerous passing tandems in the league. They will give the dominating Bears defense just enough help to keep Chicago on a roll.
Bears 27, Texans 21Last week: Steelers 27, Giants 23Season record: 5-4