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Behind a suddenly explosive offense led by Jay Cutler, the Denver Broncos have moved into a tie for first place in the AFC West. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, have a slim chance of returning to the playoffs with their defense in disarray.
The Broncos look to get another strong performance from their offense and win their third straight game Sunday when they visit the struggling Bears.
Denver (5-5) opened 2007 with consecutive wins, but then endured a stretch of losing five of six, including a 41-3 defeat to San Diego and a 44-7 setback to Detroit.
Since that loss to the Lions, the Broncos have scored 61 points in winning their last two games to tie the Chargers for the lead in the woeful West.
“This is our division,” Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall said after Monday’s 34-20 victory over Tennessee. “It’s always been our division. It’s time for us to take it back. San Diego, Kansas City, they don’t have the talent like us in the locker room.”
In Monday’s win, Denver set a franchise record with four touchdowns of longer than 40 yards.
Cutler threw TD passes of 41 and 48 yards, finishing 16-for-21 for 200 yards and a career-high passer rating of 137.0. He scrambled from the pocket on both touchdowns passes to make pinpoint throws on the move.
“He works at it and puts in a lot of great effort and shows a lot of poise,” Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. “He has the ability to make the plays in the clutch. Those are the characteristics of a great quarterback.”
Cutler might be able to throw to wide receiver Javon Walker, who has missed the last eight games due to an injured right knee but returned to practice Wednesday.
“It’s feeling pretty good,” said Walker, who had 19 catches for 230 yards through the first three games of the season. “It’s not completely healed. But it’s something I can work through. It feels good.”
The Broncos gained 166 yards on the ground against the Titans, and have rushed for 307 in their last two games after gaining 297 in their previous four.
Andre Hall, a first-year player who entered Monday’s game with eight carries this season, finished with 89 yards on seven attempts and scored his first NFL touchdown.
Hall replaced Selvin Young, who went out with a knee injury. If Young is still hurt and the Broncos are without Travis Henry, who has a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Hall could make his first NFL start against the Bears. Chicago is last in the NFC in rushing defense, allowing 125.7 yards per game.
“(Hall) was huge,” Cutler said. “It was good that he could get a little confidence in him. I’m just really proud of our guys. We stepped up. We just need to keep the momentum and keep playing well.”
The Bears (4-6) gave up 425 yards in last Sunday’s 30-23 loss at Seattle, suffering a major blow to their playoff chances.
“Time is running out,” cornerback Charles Tillman said. “We can keep talking about making a run, making a run, but time is running out. Time’s almost out right now.”
Chicago was carried by its defense during last season’s Super Bowl run, but the unit has been terrible in 2007.
Last Sunday was the fourth time this season the Bears gave up more than 400 yards and the fourth time an opponent scored at least 30 points. They allowed just one team to gain 400 yards and three to score 30 points against them over the previous two seasons.
“Got to play better. Too many yards,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said.
While the defense is sputtering, Chicago’s offense actually showed some signs of life last Sunday with Rex Grossman back as the starting quarterback.
The Bears are 25th in the league in offense (300.7) and 29th in rushing offense (81.6), but gained 345 yards and matched a season high with 107 on the ground against the Seahawks.
Grossman, who returned after watching Brian Griese run the offense for six games, was 24-for-37 for 266 yards, but after not turning the ball over all day, he fumbled at the Seattle 47 with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter and the Bears down 27-20.
“I was definitely pleased with how Rex played at the quarterback position,” coach Lovie Smith said. “I thought it gave us a chance to win.”
Cedric Benson gained 89 yards on 11 carries, and scored on a 43-yard touchdown on Chicago’s second play. The Bears hope to get another productive game from Benson, as the Broncos are 30th in the league in rush defense (149.2).
Following its bye week and two straight road games, Chicago returns home for the first time since losing to Detroit 16-7 on Oct. 28.
Soldier Field hasn’t provided the Bears with much home-field advantage, though, as they’ve dropped three straight there since beating Kansas City 20-10 in their home opener on Sept. 16. Chicago, which won 13 of 16 at home over the last two seasons, has not lost four straight at Soldier Field since Sept. 17-Oct. 15, 2000.
Denver has not visited Chicago since a 13-3 victory on Dec. 18, 1993.
These teams have played twice since then, with Chicago winning 19-10 in the last meeting on Nov. 23, 2003.