By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- The Patriots are so close to the playoffs.
A Monday night trouncing of the New York Jets put New England one win away from the postseason and one step closer to a shot at the Super Bowl. But don't bother talking about that in the locker room. It'd be a lonely conversation.
"Trust me, we're on day-to-day,'' Fred Taylor said on Wednesday. "You can't help that. Around here we're definitely on day-to-day. Playoffs aren't really in our head. We understand what the bigger picture is and the fact that there's a lot of games left, but more importantly, Chicago is the next team that's on the schedule. We're 100 PERCENT focused on them."
The Bears? Oh, yeah. A team off the map for many Patriots fans for a couple of reasons. "Out of sight, out of mind" is one of them. Sunday's game in Chicago will be the first time these two teams have met since 2006. And they've clashed just 11 times over 37 years. Series record? 7-4 in New England's favor, at least in regular-season games. Chicago does have that 1985 Super Bowl to brag about, but that was before Belichick became HC of the NEP, and most in the Northeast prefer life in the Hoodie Era.
Besides, a 9-3 record and Number Two seat in the NFC still can't seem to earn the Bears respect. Nobody's been afraid of the Big Bad Bears for a few years now, not since a non-competitive 2006 Super Bowl rollover and the middling 7-9 9-7 7-9 seasons that have followed.
That's all peripheral to the Patriots, though. All the bells and whistles attached to meeting the Jets as Monday Night Football's headliner only announced more loudly that New England is working a short week right now. The fact that Chicago is a relative stranger, well, it certainly doesn't make things easier.
"We're not too familiar with them and we're kind of behind the ball with the Monday night game,'' corner Kyle Arrington said. "So we really have to kind of scramble around, cram a lot in. We're getting prepared though."
Arrington went on to call Chicago a "tough, physical team." He's not kidding. The Bears are backed by a wicked defense. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England's top rusher by a mile (163 carries, 699 yards, 11 touchdowns), has been doing his homework, too.
"They'll create a lot of problems for us,'' said Green-Ellis. "Their defense is at the top of the league in almost every statistical category. We've got to come out on Sunday do the things that we need to do to win. Execute."
Best of luck, BenJarvus. To put numbers to his estimations: Chicago is second in the NFL in rush 'D' (84.9 yards allowed), and third in both total defense (300.3 yards allowed) and points allowed per game (16.0).
"You can't slip up against these guys,'' Taylor said. "They're a physical team, they're fast, they disrupt. Put them in the mold of the Indianapolis defense but with bigger players. They're big guys but they're just as quick, just as fast and they love flying around.''
Sounds like the Patriots have certainly sat up and taken notice of their non-neighbor in the North. And on a quick turnaround, too. The Jets game had larger-than-life billing. It was The Battle of 9-2s, The Fight for AFC Supremacy. Rex Ryan called it "the marquee game of the year." And, of course, there were those all-important playoff implications.
All of New England was in a tailspin long before the coin toss and the Patriots delivered with a 45-3 walloping. Think anybody around here has noticed that the Bears recently blanked Miami 16-0 on the road and beat Michael Vick's Eagles? Probably not. There's no question the fans won't be as geared up for an opponent that has an impressive record but evokes no rivalrous passion. The players, however have to be. And on just five days prep.
"The Bears are a very good team or else they wouldn't be 9-3 at this point,'' Taylor stressed. "They've played well and they've played some close games. Even in the games they've lost, I think they were all by a total of nine points over those three games. (Ed: The total is actually 20 points.) They're a team that you respect.''
The key is focus.
"Every day we come in here and focus on what we have to do for that day and what the plan is for that team that week and keep taking it one day at a time," Green-Ellis said.
So the goal is just a win and not the playoffs -- yes, even though a win would punch New England's ticket to the playoffs. It's simple, really: Don't try and work a step ahead or you'll fall on your face. It's no coincidence that on Wednesday Belichick called a player's footing his "lifeline." And it's a sure bet that the Bears believe an upset over the Patriots is their direct path to the legitimation.
"No. Not yet,'' Arrington stated firmly. "I think if we continue to put preparation, effort and focus and intensity into last week's practice and from here on out, I think we'll be in pretty good shape.