Bears get first division title in 11 years
It was fitting that the Chicago Bears celebrated their first division title in 11 years with another sterling performance by their opportunistic defense.
In a game which featured a 67-yard interception return by 304-pound tackle Keith Traylor, the defense forced three turnovers which led to 13 points and the Bears rolled to a 33-13 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The win clinched Chicago's first NFC Central Division title since 1990 and a first-round playoff bye.
"Let's strap open the party boots and let the party begin," Bears quarterback Jim Miller said. "There's not a more deserving team than us. Whatever team we have to play (in the playoffs), we'll play."
The Bears (13-3) lost a chance to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs when the St. Louis Rams beat the Atlanta Falcons later Sunday.
The 13 wins under coach Dick Jauron is the most for the Bears since they went 14-2 under Mike Ditka in 1986. Ditka and George Halas are the only other Chicago coaches to post as many as 13 wins in a season.
"I hope it's all in front of us and I'm happy about getting the bye," Jauron said. "We just need to do what we've been doing all along which is to play like a team. This team has a lot to be proud of."
The favorite for coach of the year honors, Jauron was believed to be on the way out in Chicago after going 11-21 in his first two seasons.
Ironically, on Sunday he got to celebrate a division title in a game against his former mentor Tom Coughlin.
Jauron was the defensive coordinator for Jacksonville from 1995-1998 before taking the Bears' job and remains close to Coughlin.
Rookie Anthony Thomas rushed for 117 of his 160 yards in the second half, including a two-yard touchdown, and Paul Edinger kicked four field goals for Chicago.
A second-round pick out of Michigan, Thomas rushed for 1,183 yards to eclipse Rashaan Salaam's club rookie record of 1,074 yards in 1995.
"Anthony was really something faster than people had thought," Jauron said.
Hampered by injuries to running back Fred Taylor and tackle Tony Boselli, the Jaguars (6-10) finished tied for last in the AFC Central with their worst record since a 4-12 campaign in 1995, their inaugural season.
Sunday's game turned into a microcosm of the season for the Bears, who yielded an NFL-low 203 points and had a turnover ratio of plus-13.
The Bears scored 10 points in the final 1:17 of the first half on a two-yard touchdown run by Leon Johnson and a 23-yard field goal by Edinger, following an interception by cornerback Jerry Azumah, to open a 13-0 lead.
The Bears opened the second half with a turnover when Miller fumbled after being sacked by rookie safety Marlon McCree and defensive end Paul Spicer recovered for the Jaguars at the Chicago 36.
But after Mark Brunell connected with Keenan McCardell on a 16-yard pass to the Chicago 20, Traylor made the play which will be a staple of NFL highlight reels.
Brunell intended to hit running back Stacey Mack with a short pass, but Traylor reached up with his right arm and intercepted it at the Chicago 24. Rumbling to his right, Traylor chugged all the way to the Jacksonville 9 while looking over his shoulder for a possible lateral before he was brought down by McCardell.
"We needed a big play at the time and the ball landed in my hands," Traylor said. "I said 'oh no, now I've gotta run.' I was looking for someone to pitch it to and they never showed up."
Two plays later, Miller threw a nine-yard TD pass to rookie David Terrell, increasing the lead to 20-0 with 9:40 left in the third quarter.
"The start of the third quarter was kind of indicative of the game," Coughlin said. "We got a turnover, we turned it back over, they scored and it was 20-0."
The Jaguars marched 70 yards in seven plays on their next drive and Brunell capped it with a 15-yard scoring pass to McCardell with 6:59 left in the third quarter. The extra-point attempt failed due to a bad snap.
The Bears responded with a nine-play, 59-yard drive as Thomas broke off runs of 34 and eight yards. Edinger capped it with his third field goal of the game, a 25-yarder with 1:52 remaining in the quarter.
The defence set up more points when linebacker Rosevelt Colvin returned an interception 14 yards to the Jacksonville 25. After an 11-yard run by Thomas, Edinger kicked a 22-yard field goal 2:04 into the fourth quarter to increase Chicago's advantage to 26-6.
Thomas, who had 33 carries, broke off another 20-yard run later in the quarter and scored on a two-yard touchdown with 7:37 left.
Brunell hit Jimmy Smith with a three-yard touchdown with 3:50 remaining.
McCardell had nine catches for 93 yards and Smith caught seven passes for 63 yards.
Smith finished second in the NFL with 112 receptions for 1,373 yards. Rod Smith of the Denver Broncos topped the NFL with 113 catches.
Chicago's Marty Booker had six catches for 37 yards, giving him 100 receptions for 1,071 yards.