LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) In a week's time, coach John Fox's Chicago Bears have used two road victories to go from rebuilders to potential contenders in an NFC with only one runaway team.
So with a home game approaching against his old club, the Denver Broncos, Fox has his attention focused entirely on the future rather than the circumstances that led to his departure from the Mile High City and subsquent hiring in Chicago.
''I think we probably clicked as well as we have all season long, in a short week, on the road, against an NFC opponent, which we hadn't done yet,'' Fox said Monday, a day after the Bears beat the St. Louis Rams 37-13. ''From that standpoint, it's gratifying after the fact.''
The Bears (4-5) were missing their top defensive player, Pernell McPhee, due to a knee injury. The same reason deprived them of running back Matt Forte for a second straight game, and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery played despite a groin injury. There were injuries on the offensive line, as well, but they emerged with their first easy victory of the year and drew within two games of the last NFC wild-card spot.
''The way we are trending, I like the way the guys are going about their business,'' Fox said.
Jay Cutler continues to improve under offensive coordinator Adam Gase. His passer rating Sunday of 151 was a single-game high and came against one of the league's best defenses. Cutler raised his season passer rating to a career-best 95.3.
''I think he's playing the quarterback position exceptionally well,'' Fox said. ''I think he's converted us on third down - although yesterday (25 percent) wasn't our highest totals in that area.
''We've tried to eliminate the turnovers, whether it be sack/fumbles or interceptions.''
Cutler had several situations when he audibled into a different play.
''He studies extremely hard to get that done,'' Fox said. ''I think our offensive staff has done a terrific job of managing that, and he's done a great job responding to it.''
The Bears' defense allowed opponents into the end zone only once in each of the last three games, and in the last two that came on the first drive.
''For whatever reason, we haven't started fast,'' Fox said. ''I don't know, jitters or what it might be, I can't put my finger on it, but we're working at it. The good news is we've responded and kind of made adjustments and gotten better the rest of the game.''
Inside linebacker Shea McClellin's return from three weeks away due to a knee sprain brought direction and leadership back on Sunday.
''We obviously missed him,'' Fox said. ''His leadership, his communication skills, a lot of guys leaned on."
McClellin forced a fumble and recovered it to set up a Bears score. After starting his career as a defensive end and then moving to outside linebacker, McClellin seems to have found his game at inside linebacker. He doesn't mind admitting he wishes he could have started there.
''I think you always have those thoughts,'' he said. ''And definitely, with (Brian) Urlacher and Lance (Briggs) here (then), that would have helped out at a young age just learning from those guys.''
The Bears are unsure whether they'll have McPhee, their best pass rusher, back against Denver.
The players say they hadn't given up on making the playoffs after an 0-3 start, so to be back in the picture is no surprise.
''That's what you play the game for,'' tight end Zach Miller said. ''We play to make it to the playoffs, make it to the tournament and win the championship.
''Obviously, we had a slow start.''
For Fox, overall football issues are much bigger than the fact he is playing his former team.
''When you've been doing this for 26 years, you kind of run into a lot of people you know,'' Fox said. ''When you're with your eighth team, you end up playing your ex-team a bunch.''
''Nameless and faceless, that's how we look at (opposing) guys,'' McClellin said.
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