Brian Urlacher stands in the cramped locker room of the Coon Creek Hunt Club, his 12-gauge shotgun resting on a cooler a few feet away as he wriggles his 6'4", 258-pound frame into a pair of insulated black overalls. The Chicago Bears' middle linebacker is readying himself for a pheasant hunt in rural Illinois, having already layered a thick sweatshirt and tattered blue jeans over a turtleneck and thermal underwear. He knows the weather will be harsh on this December morning, with the temperature dipping below zero; forecasters are warning people to venture outside only if necessary. ¬∂ None of that matters to Urlacher. He has been looking forward to this outing for a month, so he tugs at his overalls, straining to fasten the straps over his shoulders. His effort draws a quizzical stare from a club employee, who asks, "Why do you need all that gear? I've seen you guys play in cold weather, and you're always wearing short sleeves." ¬∂ Urlacher smiles. "To be honest," the six-year veteran says, "there's only one day when we worry about being tough--Sunday." ¬∂ With that, Urlacher ventures outside to join some teammates--tight end Desmond Clark, tackle Fred Miller, receiver Muhsin Muhammad--and recently waived punt returner Bobby Wade. For the next four hours they'll trudge across a frozen field of weathered cornstalks and matted snow, blasting at birds rousted from their hiding places by frenzied dogs. It's an invigorating day, filled with laughter and jokes, that eases the tension of a long NFL season and prepares them for a shot at much bigger prey: a Super Bowl berth.
Three months ago the Bears were 1-3 and seemed destined for a top five pick in the next draft. But then the defense took charge, becoming the stingiest unit in the NFL (12.6 points per game) and leading Chicago to an 11-5 record, the NFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. With third-year quarterback Rex Grossman back under center after missing the first 13 games with a broken left ankle, the offense has come alive, and the Bears, who host a divisional-round game next weekend at Soldier Field, have as good a chance of winning the wide-open NFC as any other club.
"Chicago reminds me of our 2003 team, when we went to the Super Bowl," says Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "They've got a great defense. They run the ball, they have a quarterback who's getting hot at the right time, and they play loose, which is probably the best thing about them. You can see they're having fun every time they take the field."
Chicago can play that way because its defense has been terrorizing quarterbacks. Green Bay's Brett Favre threw a total of six interceptions in two losses to the Bears. Carolina's Jake Delhomme was sacked eight times in a 13-3 Chicago win. And a befuddled Michael Vick completed only 13 of 32 passes, threw two interceptions and rushed for just 35 yards in Atlanta's 16-3 defeat.
Simply, the Bears' defense has few weaknesses. Tackles Tommie Harris and Ian Scott and ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown are so quick that Chicago rarely has to blitz. That frees speedy linebackers Urlacher and Lance Briggs to make plays from sideline to sideline. Strong safety Mike Brown sets the tone in the secondary with concussive hits, while cornerbacks Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman feed off the pressure created up front. That duo combined for 13 interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
Indeed, these Bears don't just force turnovers. They treat every takeaway like a fast break in basketball--a philosophy preached by coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera that led to four returns for TDs this year. Even in practices Chicago defensive players have to pick up any ball that falls to the ground, including an incomplete pass, and run with it. "The job of the defense isn't to just stop the offense," Smith says. "It's to score points."
This unit has been so impressive--Urlacher earned his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl, where he'll be joined by first-timers Briggs, Mike Brown, Harris and Vasher--that it has drawn comparisons to the legendary 1985 defense, the backbone of Chicago's only Super Bowl champion. (Rivera was a linebacker on that Buddy Ryan--coached unit.) The current Bears shy away from such talk, though. "The big difference between them and us," says Urlacher, "is that they actually won something."
He and several teammates who were on the 2001 Bears know that having a tough defense and a serviceable offense doesn't count for much in the playoffs. That year Chicago finished 13-3 and had a first-round bye, only to be thumped by Philadelphia in the divisional round. "We were a good team, but we weren't a legitimate 13-win team," says Mike Brown, a six-year veteran. "It seemed like every bounce went our way [in 2001], but now we believe we'll win every time we play."
That confidence is inspired by Smith, who has instilled the attacking style he taught as linebackers coach under Tony Dungy at Tampa Bay in the late 1990s and as defensive coordinator in St. Louis from 2001 through '03. After Chicago hired him as coach in January 2004, he ordered every defensive lineman to go on a diet. There was grumbling at first--"the worst part was eating salad all the time," says Alex Brown, who dropped 20 pounds to his current 260--but the Bears quickly realized the benefits of Smith's approach. He was building a defense in the mold of the stifling Bucs unit that turned that team around. Like that Bucs defense, Chicago's has exceptional talent up the middle (Harris, Urlacher, Mike Brown), great athleticism on the perimeter and a mental toughness that gets them through adverse situations.
The worst may have come on Oct. 9, when the Bears surrendered two late TDs in a 20-10 loss at Cleveland to fall to 1-3. That collapse could have ruined the season for a young team that had dropped 15 of its last 21 games dating to the 2003 finale, but the Bears stuck together. "After that game everybody on defense looked at what they had been doing wrong," Ogunleye says. "That helped us get focused on turning things around." Chicago won its next eight.
As critical as that juncture was, Smith's decision to change quarterbacks once Grossman had recovered may prove to be just as momentous. Though rookie Kyle Orton helped the Bears win nine games, his struggles--evident in his league-low 59.7 passer rating and 13 interceptions against nine touchdown passes--more often put the team at risk as the season went on. With the offense having produced only four touchdowns in 22 quarters, Smith replaced Orton with Grossman early in the second half of the Dec. 18 meeting with Atlanta. Grossman completed his first pass, a 22-yarder to Muhammad, and the offense immediately looked sharper. A week later Grossman threw for 166 yards with one touchdown and an interception in a 24-17 win over Green Bay that clinched the division title.
Grossman's downfield passing takes pressure off the running game, though Smith says Chicago won't change its conservative, run-first strategy. "We're going to do what we do," he says. "We run the football, and when we get some shots, we'll sling it around. With Rex in there, we'll still run the same plays. We'll just run them better."
"The big thing for me," adds Grossman, "is avoiding turnovers. Our bread and butter is the defense and the running game. If I can add something to that, I think we'll be a great team."
The Bears already possess the self-assuredness befitting a championship contender. Even if Grossman doesn't play well or stay healthy--injuries have limited him to eight games in his three-year career--Chicago can adjust. "We've played two or three quarterbacks every year since I've been here, so it's not a big deal to us," Urlacher says. Plus, the Bears have an easygoing vibe that will serve them well in the coming weeks.
That vibe was palpable as Urlacher and his teammates concluded their December hunting trip. As club employees cleaned the 70 dead birds the players had bagged, Urlacher and friends threw darts in the lodge and ribbed each other until night fell. They didn't want to let the good times end, and that's the same way they're approaching the postseason.
"When you look at what we have on defense, there really isn't another team that can match up with us," Urlacher says on the drive home, "and as long as our offense keeps us fresh, that's really all we need."
• Jeffri Chadiha's "Inside the NFL," at SI.com/football.
Complete NFL playoff coverage, at SI.com/nfl.