Bears go into break with some momentum

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — Never mind the record, things sure feel different this time around for the Chicago Bears.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — Never mind the record, things sure feel different this time around for the Chicago Bears.

Just like last year, they’re 4-3 at their break; only they’re rolling, not stumbling, into it. They’re looking more like a playoff team, not one that was coming apart. And the question now is whether they can keep it going, not whether they can turn it around.

“I’ve seen the identity of our team,” coach Lovie Smith said. “I’ve seen what I would like for it to look like. Our foundation is based on running the football. We’ve been able to do that lately, well. On the other side of the football, it’s about stopping the run. We’ve done that well the last couple weeks. We know what we can do with our special teams. From there, we’ll just continue to grow.

“I like having the entire roster available for us. When we get back, we’ll have some tough decisions to make on game day, and you want to be in that position.”

Back-to-back wins over Minnesota at home and Tampa Bay in London got the Bears on track after a rough start, with the offense starting to click and the defense holding its ground. They’ve gained two games on second-place Detroit in the NFC North and trail the Lions by just one.

They still have room to improve, but at least they’re looking better than they did a year ago.

The Bears stumbled into the break with three losses in four games, hardly looking like a team that would win the division and advance to the NFC championship game. The way Jay Cutler was getting knocked around, Matt Forte ignored and the blockers plowed over, they looked more like a bunch in dire need of a makeover. But they turned things around in a big way, finishing 11-5 and making the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 team’s Super Bowl run.

A schedule that helped their cause last year — they faced some weak teams and backup quarterbacks — isn’t so kind this fall. They go to Philadelphia for a Monday night game after the bye, then host Detroit and San Diego before playing at Oakland. Even so, there’s less angst heading into this bye week despite some awfully familiar sights in the early going.

Cutler got pounded. The run got ignored. The blockers gave defenses free passes, and when the quarterback had enough time, Forte had no room to run. At times, it seemed Mike Martz was again trying to force-feed his system to a team that wasn’t suited to run it. And a defense that was expected to lead the way wasn’t helping matters, allowing too many big plays and forcing too few turnovers.

The past few weeks have been a different story

The Bears clamped down against Minnesota, limiting Adrian Peterson to 39 yards rushing in a 39-10 rout. Against Tampa Bay, they made Josh Freeman miserable, intercepting him four times in a 24-18 victory. That was more like it for a team that leads the league in takeaways since Smith took over as coach in 2004. And while the defense did its job, Forte went wild again.

He ran for 145 yards against the Buccaneers and is third in the league with 672 this season. No one has as many yards from scrimmage as Forte (1,091), who could challenge the record set by Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (2,509) in 2009.

And with Earl Bennett eyeing a return from his chest injury next week against Philadelphia and tackle Gabe Carimi (knee) inching closer to a comeback, the offense figures to get a boost in the coming weeks.

“I tell you what I’m really pleased with is the intensity and how physical we played our positions,” Martz said. “The receivers, everybody is . they get after it pretty good. The offensive line, the running game, it’s kind of pushed over into the passing game, too. I’m very pleased with the attitude, the competitiveness of this group, the tenacity, the toughness — all those things.”

Can the Bears keep it up? Can they continue the run, make another big push? This time last year, the mood around Chicago wasn’t so good.

Now, at least, things are looking up.

“There’s so much football to be played in the second half,” Cutler said. “November and December is really where you kind of come together, and where playoff teams are made. So we feel good about what we’re doing. We’ve just got to keep improving, and take a look at what we’ve done the first seven games — what we’re good at, what we’re not good at — and get a good game plan for going forward.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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