An extremely opportunistic defense has helped the Chicago Bears take advantage of a favorable first-half schedule and build plenty of confidence for what is expected to be a more grueling second half.
A balanced offense and strong defense are two major reasons why the Houston Texans have the best record in the AFC.
Two of the NFL's top teams meet Sunday night at Soldier Field when the Texans try to prevent the Bears from winning seven straight games for the first time in six years.
This contest is expected to be a good test for both 7-1 teams that hope to make it to New Orleans come February. Each team's only loss came to the surging Green Bay Packers, and the Bears are 4-0 at home while Houston is 3-0 on the road.
"Each game as you continue to win, the stakes go up a little bit higher," Bears coach Lovie Smith. "We realize that and we're going to embrace it. We're going to embrace this national stage that we have this Sunday night."
Only one of Chicago's victories has come against a team with a winning record heading into Week 10, and Sunday begins a stretch where it plays seven of its final eight against opponents at .500 or better. Looking to win seven in a row for the first time since opening 7-0 in 2006, the Bears welcome the challenge.
"I don't want the guys to start thinking, 'Hey, let's hold on, something bad's going to happen,''' Smith said. "We're a good football team. We're excited about playing the Texans. I see our team getting better and better. We haven't peaked yet.''
It's hard to believe the Bears can get better defensively.
They are second in the NFL in scoring defense at 15.0 points per game, tied for third with 25 sacks and lead the league with 28 forced turnovers. Charles Tillman forced four fumbles and Brian Urlacher returned an interception 46 yards for Chicago's seventh defensive touchdown in last Sunday's 51-20 rout at Tennessee.
"(The Bears) are very well-built in what they do and they've been together for a long time,'' Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "What they're doing speaks for itself. We have a serious task ahead of us.''
That task would be easier if the Texans didn't have to line up against Tillman, and that appeared to be a possibility if his pregnant wife went into labor Sunday. However, it seems the Pro Bowl cornerback expects to play after saying on Twitter that "Baby is coming Monday don't worry I'll be there Sunday."
Regardless of who is on the field, the Bears face a tough task against a Houston team that has committed a league-low six turnovers and averages 138.0 yards on the ground. Star Arian Foster is fifth in the NFL with 770 rushing yards and first with 11 overall TDs.
Houston also has allowed 10 sacks - tied for the fewest in the AFC.
"It's kind of a strength against a strength,'' Kubiak said. "Hopefully we can hold up our end of the bargain.''
For as much attention as Chicago has drawn defensively, the Texans rank near the top of the league, allowing 286.1 total yards and 17.1 points. Houston has not allowed a rushing TD this season and will try to shut down Chicago's Matt Forte, who has scored in each of the last two games and ran for 103 yards on 12 carries against the Titans.
Like Tillman, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt has blossomed into a defensive MVP contender with 10 1/2 sacks and 10 passes defended. Stopping Watt will be a huge challenge for a Bears offensive line that has yielded 28 sacks - third-most in the NFL.
Chicago ranks 25th in total offense (324.4) and 29th in passing (195.9), but should feel confident after amassing 358 yards at Tennessee. Jay Cutler was 19 of 26 for 229 yards with three TDs to Brandon Marshall, who finished with nine catches for 122 yards.
"We're not there yet, but we are taking steps forward I think,'' said Forte, who recorded 75 total yards in Chicago's 31-24 loss at Houston in 2008.
In his first season with Chicago, Marshall's 59 receptions, 797 receiving yards and seven touchdowns already surpass all of the team's individual receiving leader plateaus in 2011.
While Foster has never faced the Bears, Houston's Matt Schaub threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns to Andre Johnson against them in 2008. Schaub has thrown four TDs and no interceptions in the last two games.
Johnson, who caught 10 passes for 148 yards in that 2008 contest, had eight for 118 in last Sunday's 21-9 win over Buffalo.
Tight end and suburban Chicago native Owen Daniels has recorded all of his team-high five touchdown receptions in the last six games, but Houston's second-leading receiver could miss the game due to a back injury. Daniels missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, then Kubiak said he was "very limited" Friday and would be a "game-time decision."