CHICAGO (AP)—Nathan Vasher didn’t set a record this time—he set the tone.
One week after returning a missed field goal a record 108 yards, Vasher intercepted two passes, and the North-leading Bears stamped themselves as a contender in the NFC on Sunday with a 13-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Chicago’s sixth straight win.
“I’m playing as well as anybody,” Vasher said. “Our defense is playing as good as—if not better—than anybody.”
The NFC South-leading Panthers (7-3) saw their six-game win streak end. After scoring at least 20 points in every game, they managed 238 yards against the NFL’s No. 1 defense, and quarterback Jake Delhomme was sacked eight times.
Vasher’s first pick led to a 3-yard touchdown reception for former Panther Muhsin Muhammad, and the second resulted in a 33-yard field goal by Robbie Gould in the first quarter. The second-year pro has six interceptions.
Muhammad had six receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown against his former team but dropped several passes. Justin Gage caught seven balls for 81 yards.
Fred Miller started at right tackle for the Bears after missing last week’s game with a broken jaw—the result of a punch to the face from center Olin Kreutz during an altercation at an FBI shooting range in the Chicago area on Nov. 7. The FBI launched an internal investigation into the incident.
“We’ve already put it behind us, you know,” said Miller, whose jaw was starting to swell. “You guys still want to write about it and care about it. We had to go our there and win a ball game, no matter what. This is what we need to do to ultimately achieve goals of where we want to go.”
Kreutz said he and Miller are still embarrassed and added there’s “not a right or wrong guy in that whole situation. We’re just both idiots.”
Carolina’s Steve Smith, the NFL’s leader with 937 yards receiving entering the game, caught 14 passes for 169 yards. But others struggled: Delhomme was 22-of-38 for 235 yards and two interceptions, and the Panthers managed only 55 yards rushing.
“Certainly they are good; there’s no doubt,” Delhomme said. “We put ourselves in a hole early. I had a couple picks early on, we went down 10-0. We just never got anything going.”
None of the Bears’ previous five wins were against teams with winning records, and the only blowout was a 28-3 victory over Minnesota on Oct. 16.
One week after winds whipped through Soldier Field at up to 47 mph, wreaking havoc on the passing and kicking games, there was just a light breeze. Yet, the Panthers turned it over on their first possession.
On third down, Vasher intercepted Delhomme at the Chicago 46 and was knocked out of bounds at the 8. After having a pass batted at the line on second down, Orton found Muhammad about a step behind the goal line for a 3-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead.
Vasher’s second interception came with about 6:40 left in the quarter; this time, he intercepted Delhomme at the 40 and returned it to the 18.
“There is no need to be all out of whack when you are trying to play the ball,” Vasher said. “I’m doing what the coaching staff asks me to do, I’m having the right progressions and the right reads. It just looks easy, I guess. Football is one of those things either you can or you can’t. I obviously can.”
At the moment, the Bears are playing like a team that can.
Free safety Chris Harris showed it early in the fourth quarter when he sprinted to his left, lunged, and broke up a pass intended for Ricky Proehl in the end zone on third down. The Panthers settled for a field goal.
Ogunleye and Alex Brown showed it by breaking through the line.
“The thing about Alex is his total might not be (high), but he causes a lot of holding penalties,” strong safety Mike Brown said of Alex Brown, who has three sacks. “He causes a lot of pressure. It good to see him get the sacks off it.”
Carolina lost starting middle linebacker Dan Morgan to a sprained left ankle about five minutes into the game. Morgan, the team leader with 74 tackles, was helped off the field after a run by the Bears’ Thomas Jones. … Several Panthers, including Smith, hugged Muhammad after the game and posed for pictures. … After fumbling three punts against San Francisco, the Bears’ Bobby Wade returned three for three yards.