CHICAGO — As one of the most accomplished defensive players of his era, Brian Urlacher has come out on the right side of many a mano-a-mano standoff.
On Sunday night at soggy Soldier Field, after he and the Chicago Bears got out-Monster-of-the-Midwayed by the visiting Houston Texans, Urlacher made no attempt to put a positive spin on a resounding defeat.
"Their defense outplayed our defense," Urlacher said after the Texans' 13-6 victory in a showdown between two of the league's top teams. "I don't like it when that happens, but they did it [Sunday night], man."
The Texans (8-1) didn't merely limit the Bears (7-2) to a pair of Robbie Gould field goals, eight first downs and 249 total yards. They also forced four turnovers, all in the first half, and knocked Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler out of the game with a second-quarter concussion.
If you're a Bears fan, that last sentence likely made your stomach drop. Nearly a year ago, Chicago was 7-3, riding a four-game winning streak and seemingly headed for a playoff berth when Cutler went down with a broken thumb that knocked him out for the season. The Bears proceeded to lose five consecutive games, beginning with a 25-20 defeat to the Oakland Raiders, who were trying to cope with the loss of their own starting quarterback to a season-ending injury.
That quarterback, Jason Campbell, signed with Chicago as a free agent after the season. The Bears gave Campbell a one-year, $3.5 million deal precisely because last year's team (whose then-backup, Caleb Hanie, struggled mightily in relief of Cutler) was so unprepared for life without its franchise quarterback.
[NFL winners/losers: Different QB, same results for Eagles]
Though Campbell (11 for 19, 94 yards, no turnovers) put up only three points in relief of Cutler (7 for 14, 40 yards, two interceptions), there's reason to believe the Bears can survive and thrive if they have to play their backup for an extended period.
"That's why we got Jason over the offseason — in case Jay went down," Urlacher said. "I don't think he did a bad job. He just came into a tough situation.
"Don't get me wrong — I hate that Jay is out, and it [expletive] stresses me out. He's such a tough son of a [expletive], and I know he'll try hard to get back soon. But trust me, we're better off now than we were last year at the backup position."
From the Texans' perspective, knocking out Cutler was collateral damage after a show of force designed to make a statement to the rest of the football world. Though Houston had the AFC's best record coming into the game, its 42-24 home defeat to the Green Bay Packers in mid-October — the Texans' previous Sunday Night Football appearance — left a stain that tarnished the team's pedigree in the eyes of many observers.
Having heard all the justifiable hype about the Bears' defense, which had forced a league-best 28 turnovers coming into the game (and would pick off a pair of Matt Schaub passes in the first half), the Texans' defenders were ready to deliver a loud-and-clear message.
"I feel like we did," Houston defensive end Antonio Smith said. "That's all we heard about all week — how Chicago's defense was this and that. And we just felt like this was a challenge to us, to prove ourselves as a defense. I feel like they felt the same way. You'd be lying if you said we weren't both going into this game to see who's the best."
Advantage Houston — though, in fairness, the Bears did limit Schaub to 95 passing yards and gave up just 215 total yards, 102 rushing to Pro Bowl halfback Arian Foster, whose diving, two-yard catch 4:14 before halftime stood up as the game's lone touchdown.
"It was completely a battle of the defenses," Bears free safety Chris Conte said. "We have to outplay their defense, and obviously, the turnover margin didn't go our way. When that happens, it's hard to win."
The Bears' offense missed some opportunities, too. With 12:57 left in the second quarter and Chicago facing third-and-5 from the Houston 33-yard line, Cutler launched a beautiful ball to wideout Brandon Marshall that looked like a sure touchdown. Instead, it bounced off Marshall's hands and facemask, and the Bears settled for Gould's 51-yard field goal that tied the game at 3.
Following Foster's touchdown, Cutler drove the Bears to midfield, where on a third-and-9 play with 2:30 left in the first half, he scrambled away from pressure and looked like he was taking off on a run up the middle. At the last second, Cutler flipped an eight-yard pass to Devin Hester while absorbing a head-to-chin shot from Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins. Cutler, who got right up, was flagged for an illegal forward pass, as he had crossed the line of scrimmage. Dobbins got a personal foul for unnecessary roughness, and the penalties offset.
On the next play Cutler took off on an 11-yard run and absorbed another hit, from Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson. Two plays later, he threw an interception to Jackson. He went back out for Chicago's final series of the half, scrambling for 19 yards and completing one-of-three passes for four yards, and was apparently diagnosed with the concussion at some point during halftime.
"At halftime they told me, 'Hey, you're up,' " Campbell said. "You just try to hurry up and get your mind ready."
In Campbell's case, that meant playing a ferocious and fired-up defense in rainy and windy conditions.
"I know, right?" Campbell said, laughing. "You just try to make the best of it."
If Cutler can't go next Monday night, when the Bears face the San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1) at Candlestick Park, Campbell will return to the Bay Area to play against another formidable defense.
"You have to do what you've gotta do," he said. "It's gonna be another tough challenge. It is what it is. You've just got to make the most of your opportunity."
The Bears, who'd won six in a row since they (like the Texans) were humbled by the Packers in a nationally televised night game, will get an opportunity in San Francisco to get a long-awaited signature victory. In the meantime, they emerged from Sunday's defeat with a heavy dose of humility.
"We knew coming in this would be a tough matchup for us," Hester said. "There's a reason why their record's like that. This wasn't a must-win game, but it's a game that showed us where we're at. They're one of those teams that, if we do make it to the promised land, we might face."
Even if Cutler is out for an extended period, the Bears believe Campbell can put them in position to make the playoff run they were denied in 2011. And as far as Chicago's future Hall of Fame middle linebacker is concerned, the onus is also on the defense to outplay its future opponents — something the Bears failed to accomplish on Sunday night.
"Jay being out just puts more pressure on us to make more plays," Urlacher said. "And we've done that. We can do that. Our goal is to outplay the other team's defense every game — it doesn't matter who we're playing. We need to get better."
After Sunday night's impressive showing, the Texans appear to be the gold standard.
1. The New York Giants' seeming indifference to all but the most important games, which was on display in Sunday's 31-13 road defeat to the Bengals, drives their fans, coach Tom Coughlin and people like me crazy – but given that it has been validated by Super Bowl rings twice in the past five seasons, I don't expect it to change anytime soon.
2. With a pair of gritty defensive stops in the final minutes of a 31-27 victory over the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons – including three snaps from within two yards of their end zone – the beleaguered Saints defense may have saved New Orleans' season. The Saints (4-5) also made me look smart and undoubtedly inspired our ever-gracious friends from the '72 Dolphins to sing their praises.
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a man who desperately wants to be a legitimate franchise quarterback, had a chance to earn a signature victory in Foxborough on Sunday – and he threw the ball to New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty in the end zone with 23 seconds remaining, dooming the Buffalo Bills to a 37-31 defeat (and, undoubtedly, creating an increased sense of urgency to bring in a new starter next season).
4. Lots of Philly fans finally got their wish when Michael Vick went down with a second-quarter concussion and rookie Nick Foles took over at quarterback – and the kid coughed up a pair of turnovers-for-touchdowns (with another called back by penalty) in the Eagles' 38-23 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys. Next quick-fix solution?
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Why the woman standing directly behind President Obama during his election night victory speech chose to embed an American flag inside her hair.
2. Why the Chiefs, according to a report Sunday by Fox's Jay Glazer, are trying to stiff former coach Todd Haley out of the money (more than $2.5 million) they owe him. Haley, as I noted last week, is doing quite nicely as the Steelers' offensive coordinator and is likely to inflict further misery upon former boss Scott Pioli at Heinz Field on Monday night. It sure looks on the outside like the decision by Pioli, the Chiefs' general manager, and team owner Clark Hunt to fire Haley last December wasn't the shrewdest football move. Although that's their prerogative, withholding the balance of money he is owed – whatever their reasons – is shortsighted, spiteful and stupid. Maybe Hunt will save all or part of the $2.5 million (though I highly doubt it), and perhaps Pioli, one of the league's most petty men, will extract some measure of revenge on Haley for, I don't know, coaching K.C. to an unlikely division title in the 2010 season.
The big picture: Good coaches – or, more accurately, coaches with other options – won't want to come work for an organization that behaves this way. You know who else routinely refused to pay ex-coaches the money they were contractually owed? Al Davis. The late Raiders owner did it to Mike Shanahan back in the '80s, and he did it so conspicuously with Lane Kiffin four years ago that it became the stuff of legend, complete with a rambling media conference and the owner's overhead-projector-aided gotcha moment. Dysfunctional teams fire coaches for cause. Real organizations cut their ties, cut a check and move forward.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I like writing diatribes. I really do. However, I also like trash talk, and given that Saints linebacker Scott Shanle had plenty of that to share after his team's victory over the Falcons, I'm going to let him do the honors this week. And when Shanle, who turns 33 later this month, decides to stop playing football, he'll likely be able to consider NFL columnist as a potential career option. However, if Shanle ends up taking my job, then you'll get a real diatribe.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"We drive you crazy? Man I need medication"
– Text Sunday night from Giants defensive end Justin Tuck.
Yahoo! Sports Fantasy advice for Chiefs-Steelers: