LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- After losing a few teeth, does the Chicago Bears defense have the same bite?
Defense is a big reason the Bears owned the NFC's best record, which earned them the right to host the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game on Sunday. But a defense regularly compared three months ago to the awesome unit during Chicago's 1985 Super Bowl season has shown signs of vulnerability.
The Bears were the only team in the NFL to hold its first 10 opponents under 300 total yards, but they have allowed an average of 364.7 yards over the last six games. They also gave up 26.3 points in their final four regular-season games against opponents that finished with a combined 23-41 record. Last Sunday, Chicago yielded 308 yards and 24 points but came from behind to post a three-point overtime playoff win over Seattle.
No longer great, the Bears' defenders won't mind setting for just being good if it leads to a win on Sunday.
"You can give up all the yards in the world, but if you make the play when you need to make the play and you come off with the victory, that's all that matters," cornerback Charles Tillman said. "We're in the NFC Championship. We can give up 600, 700 yards a game, and if we win the game, who cares?"
Injuries have played a role in the Bears' recent defensive struggles. Safety Mike Brown tore his Achilles tendon in the sixth game of the season. Tackle Tommie Harris, in the midst of an All-Pro season, tore a hamstring in Week 12. Harris' injury coincided with the defense's slide.
Tillman and fellow cornerback Nathan Vasher also missed games, as did safety Todd Johnson and tackle Tank Johnson. Those players are back, but the defense will be without two big pieces in Brown and Harris.
"You're not going to replace either of those two players. They're great players," All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "But we've had some guys step up and do a good job for us while they've been out. Our defense has stayed the same. We've had the same calls. We just had different personnel in there."
Still, the talk that the Bears' defense is fallible persists. Despite all the talk that their defense has declined, the Bears would like to remind everyone that they still finished the regular season as the top-ranked defense in the NFC and were third in the NFL in yards and points allowed.
"You want to play well," said defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. "But what is the ultimate goal? The ultimate goal is to win. It doesn't matter if the results are pretty. What does matter is you get the job done and win."
The Bears' defense may not be as dominant as it was during the first half of the season, but it was at its best in the fourth quarter last Sunday. Cornerback Ricky Manning had an interception to kill one Seattle drive. Outside linebacker Lance Briggs stuffed running back Shaun Alexander on fourth-and-1 in Chicago territory. Tank Johnson added a sack in the closing seconds of regulation to prevent a potential winning field goal try.
"We have a defense capable of dominating," outside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "Maybe we haven't done that in the last couple games, but you never know when it all comes together."
The Bears hope everything comes together for their defense on Sunday against a potent Saints offense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL.
Led by All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees, running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush and wide receiver Marques Colston, the Saints averaged 391.5 total yards and 281.4 passing yards during the regular season, both league highs. In the NFC division playoff game, the Saints rolled up 435 yards in a 27-24 come-from-behind victory over Philadelphia.
"If you think you're one of the best defenses, then you love a good test," Hillenmeyer said. "You love the chance to play against a team that is the No. 1 offense in the NFL right now."
Bears coach Lovie Smith liked how his defense responded in the clutch against the Seahawks. He is counting on more of the same on Sunday.
"We play our style of defense and to me that is getting after them from start to finish," Smith said. "We want them to play on an emotional high. We want them to try to make a big play on every down. There is discipline that goes into that, just playing our defense. Hopefully we have gotten that across, but right now we want them to play at that fourth-and-1 level, overtime, last-two-minutes-of-the-game-level from the start of the game. That is what we are preaching."