NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Somehow it was perfect that the number the Bears put on the scoreboard was the same as the one they retired in honor of Dick Butkus, the linebacker celebrated as the most feared man in football during his Hall of Fame career.
A 51-20 victory over the Titans (3-6) on Sunday afternoon at LP Field made it clear the Bears (7-1) should be feared even as their schedule becomes considerably more challenging.
The defense continued to dominate as cornerback Charles Tillman forced a career-high four fumbles and linebacker Brian Urlacher scored the team's seventh interception return touchdown of the season. Special teams broke out with a blocked punt and a long return and the offense came to life late as Jay Cutler threw three touchdown passes to Brandon Marshall.
It sets up a Sunday night meeting at Soldier Field with the Texans (7-1) in what could be a Super Bowl preview, a prime-time matchup for the nation to enjoy. Following that is a "Monday Night Football" appearance Nov. 19 against the 49ers (6-2) in San Francisco.
Before the Bears, who have won six consecutive games for the first time since the start of the 2006 season, contemplate the road ahead, they will enjoy this one for a day. It was the most points the Bears have scored since hanging 61 on the Packers in 1980. It was the fourth game the Bears have won by at least 16 points this season. It happened in a flurry as the team scored four touchdowns in a 5-minute, 11-second span of the first quarter.
Sherrick McManis blocked a punt that Corey Wootton returned 5 yards for a special teams touchdown. A 44-yard punt return by Devin Hester set up a one-play scoring drive — an 8-yard run by Matt Forte that made it 14-2 after the Titans were awarded a safety.
Then Urlacher picked off Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and rumbled 46 yards for a touchdown, his first pick-six in five seasons. Tillman stripped Titans running back Chris Johnson on the Titans' next play, and three plays later Cutler hit Marshall for his first score.
"The big plays, I have never been around anything like this, high school, college, any level," Urlacher said. "Every week it seems like someone else is doing it."
The defense has 28 takeaways, leading to an NFL-best plus-16 turnover ratio. That's what Lovie Smith has preached since the day he arrived in 2004. But he's not ready to call this the best defense he has coached.
"It's a little early for that," Smith said. "We like where we are right now. I know this defense is doing some things that no other defense has done that I've ever been a part of. You know, scoring touchdowns, the amount of takeaways we've been able to get. That is special what we have going at the halfway point."
The offense got rolling in the second half and Cutler finished 19 of 26 for 229 yards. He also connected with Marshall (nine catches, 122 yards) on touchdowns of 39 and 5 yards long after it was a rout. Cutler lost one fumble when he was sacked by Jurrell Casey. Forte rushed for 103 yards on 12 carries, breaking off a 46-yard gain. He also gained 47 yards on a screen pass.
"We stumbled a little bit offensively," Cutler said. "Definitely some things to work on. We're headed in the right direction. We just have to put together a four-quarter game at some point."
Defensive end Israel Idonije escaped what could have been an ugly injury when he was bent backward, and the Bears indicated a back issue for defensive tackle Henry Melton was minor. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is expected to return from a broken hand soon, likely this week or next.
Teammates are pushing Tillman for defensive player of the year. He was credited with a team-high nine tackles and now has seven forced fumbles and two interceptions for touchdowns.
"We are all seeing history being made," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "I've never seen anybody who's been able to do the things he's been able to do."
The Bears now must produce against better teams. They swept the second quarter, as Smith likes to divide the schedule, but the Titans, Panthers, Lions and Jaguars have 10 wins between them.
Still, blowouts like Sunday's send a message.
"We are creating something special," Melton said. "I know that."
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