Chicago has the inside track to a division crown and Pittsburgh has an uphill climb just to make the playoffs heading into this matchup at Heinz Field.
The Bears finished 5-11 last season and at the bottom of the NFC North, failing to make the playoffs for a third straight year.
They weren’t expected to be much better this season and got off to a 1-3 start, but have since recovered to win eight straight and take a two-game division lead over Minnesota. This is Chicago’s longest winning streak since a 12-game run in 1985, when the team finished 15-1 and captured the franchise’s only Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh was one win away from making the Super Bowl last season, losing to New England in the AFC championship game after posting a league-best 15-1 record. With Ben Roethlisberger entering his second NFL season, the Steelers again were expected to be title contenders.
However, injuries to Roethlisberger and an inconsistent defense have led to the current three-game losing streak, dropping the Steelers two games behind first-place Cincinnati in the AFC North.
“Confidence is a very fragile thing, and it certainly is something that has to start with your mental approach and your ability to respond and stay focused and not allow negative thoughts to enter into your own mind,” Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. “When you’re successful, it’s easier to expect success. All of a sudden it’s not there, it becomes more of a challenge.”
The Bears won their eighth straight by defeating the division rival Green Bay Packers 19-7 last week.
The top-ranked Chicago defense intercepted two of Brett Favre’s passes and Nathan Vasher returned one for a 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Ten of the Bears’ 19 points were scored off turnovers.
“I’m having a blast,” said Vasher, who has seven interceptions this season and 12 in his two-year career. “If we continue to win like this, plays like that are going to come. We’re getting sacks, we’re getting interceptions, and that makes the game a whole lot more fun.
“It seems like the last five, six minutes of the game are real fun for us, and that’s the way we’ve got to continue to play.”
The Bears are scoring only 16.8 points per game, but the defense has held opponents to an average of 10.6.
“When you say the defense has carried us, that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “That’s the strength of our team.”
The quarterback position continues to be an obvious weakness for the Bears, with rookie Kyle Orton going 6-of-17 for 68 yards against the Packers. Orton started the season in place of the injured Rex Grossman and has a quarterback rating of 60.2 on the season with nine touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 11 fumbles.
However, Orton’s 9-3 record is the one statistic that matters most.
“He’s quarterbacked us to eight wins in a row and nine on the season. His leadership ability to get the job done,” Smith said.
If Orton keeps winning, Smith may have a hard time benching him, even though Grossman has recovered from a broken ankle suffered in the preseason and could be elevated to the backup spot this weekend. The Bears first-round selection from 2003 has only played six games in two seasons, going 3-3 with a 71.1 quarterback rating with three touchdowns and four interceptions. The Steelers, meanwhile, are trying to avoid becoming the first team in NFL history to miss the playoffs after winning 15 games the previous season.
Pittsburgh lost 38-31 to Cincinnati last week to fall two games back in the division and one game out in the wild-card race.
Roethlisberger played through a right thumb injury to throw for a career-high 383 yards, but also had three interceptions. He plans to play out the rest of the season despite possibly needing surgery on the thumb.
The injury has caused Roethlisberger visible pain and affected his ability to throw some passes. He’s wearing a protective splint under a glove to protect it.
“We’ll probably do that the rest of the way—we won’t be able to take snaps without it,” Roethlisberger said. “I can’t grip the ball if I don’t wear it. The splint takes the pressure away and puts it back on my wrist, so actually I can grip the ball a little better than I could if I didn’t have it on.”
The Steelers’ struggles have centered on the defense, turnovers and penalties.
During the past three games, the Steelers have been penalized 27 times, including two games with 10 each. The defense has allowed 26.7 points per game against the Ravens, Colts and Bengals.
Pittsburgh has committed 19 turnovers, only two behind last season’s total.
“And when we’ve played well on offense, we haven’t played well on defense,” Cowher said. “We haven’t been able to put together a complete game.”