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Bears-Texans showdown likely to turn on a big defensive play

The Texans bat passes down -- 25 of them this season. The Bears force fumbles -- 21 of them this year. You think a defense-fest can't be fun? Watch Sunday night when the Texans (7-1) travel to Soldier Field to face the similarly 7-1 Bears.

The Bears have been more compelling to watch on defense than offense this year ... and that's with a running back, Matt Forte, averaging 5.0 yards per rush, and a receiver, Brandon Marshall, on pace for a 1,594-yard receiving season. Watch Charles Tillman wind up like some football de la Hoya and throw a roundhouse at a secured football. In his 10-season NFL career, he's forced 36 fumbles, and an amazing four of them came last Sunday in Nashville in Chicago's obliteration of the Titans.

Chicago has turnover practice every day, a short, tidy session during which players use techniques perfected by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and coach Lovie Smith to both dislodge the ball and practice picking it off. Twenty-one punches have landed successfully so far this season, and seven interceptions have been returned for touchdowns in eight games. Some teams don't have seven touchdowns or interceptions in a decade; the Bears have done it in a half-season.

"Our big emphasis this week,'' left tackle Duane Brown said after practice Thursday from Houston, "has been holding the ball going through the line, then holding the ball at the second level, because they come up behind you and punch it away. We've got to keep the ball high and tight. Never relax on that.

"Our scout team receivers have done an excellent job simulating that. Watching the Bears, you can see ballcarriers think they're free and clear with no one around them and then boom� disaster strikes. It's crazy. Interceptions, sacks, fumbles, defensive touchdowns. There's nobody like them right now.''

For Houston, assistant head coach/defensive line coach Bill Kollar has his own technique that's been a huge help to the AFC's stingiest defense. He coaches the swat technique. Once a pass-rusher knows he'll be walled off from the quarterback and won't get to him by the time the pass will be released, the rushers stick their hands in the air to try to block the ball. The leader of the pack has been defensive end J.J. Watt, who has 10, four of which landed in Texans defenders' arms for interceptions.

There's not a lot a quarterback can do to prepare for this, because the hands tend to shoot up at the last moment, when a quarterback has already started his throwing motion. Unless the quarterback has a great grip on the ball and can pull it back, he's likely to see it go fluttering in the air, which happens at an average of 3.1 times per game against Houston.

Two good offenses meet Sunday night, with incredible similar productivity. Houston is scoring 29.6 points per game, Chicago 29.5. If the Bears' leaky line� plus a good blitz-pickup back, Forte, can protect Jay Cutler, the Bears will score in the 20s. And if the Texans don't turn it over, they're liable to score in the 20s too. But more likely, the game will turn on a big defensive play. Maybe a J.J. Swatt or a fumble we didn't see coming.

I like the Bears, 20-16 ... but mostly, I like the game. This could be the most fun defensive game of the season.

Andrew Luck the passer has done well enough in his first nine games as a pro, leading the Colts to a surprising 6-3 record and a spot, as of this Friday morning, as the fifth playoff seed in the AFC. (Pittsburgh, 5-3, would be sixth.) Andrew Luck the runner, well, we should have seen this coming at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last February.

Luck's excellent athletic numbers were obliterated by Robert Griffin III's historic ones, but remember the story of the Combine the day Luck competed: One of his 40-yard dash times, 4.59 seconds, equaled Cam Newton's at the 2011 Combine numbers. Luck out-vertical-jumped Newton, 36 inches to 35. And though Luck's not going to be unleashed to run as much as Newton was in the Panther's 14-rushing-touchdown freshman year, Luck did have his fourth and fifth rushing touchdowns for the Colts to help them beat Jacksonville 27-10 Thursday night in Jacksonville.

That gives Luck -- who is averaging 3.8 carries and 18 yards per games -- five rushing touchdowns. And as he showed Thursday, Luck has some great instincts when it comes to knowing whether to stay in the pocket or take off. Another good sign in a long list of them that the Colts have a worthy successor to Peyton Manning.

Patrick Robinson, cornerback, New Orleans (No. 21). You can bet the Falcons' offensive staff, in studying the Saints during the week (and before) have put a target on Robinson. And you can bet the Saints hope Robinson got a needed confidence boost with his 99-yard interception return for a touchdown last week off Michael Vick. According to stat-mongering ProFootballFocus.com, no cornerback has surrendered more yards after the catch this season than Robinson's 285, a sign that he's been beaten with enough space between him and his man that the receiver can run for significant yardage. The site also has Robinson as the fourth-most-targeted cornerback in the league (62 throws) in just eight games.

Robinson has a talented receiver corps to defend this week, and he'll be crucial to whatever chances the Saints have to get a desperation win over the 8-0 Falcons.

1. Reunion Tour I. John Fox, who led the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance nine years ago, returns to Carolina in triumph with his AFC West-leading Broncos and Peyton Manning Sunday. If Manning's on, this might not be pretty.

2. Reunion Tour II. Todd Haley, who led the Chiefs to their last playoff appearance, in 2010, coordinates a Steelers offense that the world expects to walk over Kansas City Monday night at Heinz Field. Don't expect to see a lot of warm and fuzzies between Haley and his ex-team.

3. Eli Manning tries to get hot again. A 54.5-percent passer with two touchdowns and four picks in his last four games, Manning goes to Cincinnati for the first time since his rookie season. Word to the wise for a Giants line that may be without ace guard Chris Snee (swing tackle David Diehl would have to move inside to replace him): the hottest rusher among NFL defensive tackles is Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, with seven sacks in eight games. And he'll be coming Sunday.

4. Jake Locker returns for Tennessee. I don't think it'll matter. The Dolphins are better, and should frustrate Locker defensively in South Florida.

5. Adrian Peterson: Next victim. He's threatening to win the rushing title by triple digits (nine games, 957 yards), just months after knee reconstruction. The Vikings have a cold quarterback, and Detroit's giving up 4.3 yards per carry on the ground. Guess what Minnesota's game plan is?

6. The (Nearby) Providence Steam Roller rolls on. The Patriots, 35 minutes from where the former eight-year NFL franchise played in the 1920s and '30s, are averaging 33 points and 441 yards a game, both league bests. Only one team has allowed more points than Buffalo, the Pats' Week 10 opponent. I expect New England's 18th win in the last 19 games of this series to be pretty easy.

7. The Saints try to save their season. The league's worst defense wouldn't seem to be much of a match for the 8-0 Falcons, and Atlanta could score in the 30s at the Superdome. But the Saints won 45-16 the last time they played, the Saints are 10-2 in the series over the last six seasons and Drew Brees knows New Orleans is playing for its playoff life. This will be a good one.

8. Payton news. There's sure to be some Sean Payton happenings this weekend regarding his stalled contract with the Saints. I'm hearing it's far, far from a sure thing he'll bolt the Saints. "Much better than 50-50 he stays,'' is what I heard this week.

9. Vick on a Fiscal Cliff. With his mega-millions contract for 2013 and beyond in the balance, Vick needs a classic Vick performance and a win over Dallas to be sure of keeping his job down the stretch of this forgettable Eagles season. Even though the game's in Philadelphia, Dallas seems to have every edge there.

10. Doug Martin on a roll. No NFL player is hotter than Bucs running back Doug Martin (386 rushing yards in the last two games). San Diego can play the run well, though. The Chargers will have to muzzle Martin to keep their perfect record in Tampa (5-0) alive.

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