Bears' defense primed for second-half playoff push

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Chicago Bears had to take full advantage of the soft spot in their schedule to seriously contend for an NFC North title in the second half of the season.

Mission accomplished.

The Bears (5-3) are true playoff contenders just over the midway point of the season for the first time since 2013 after back-to-back wins over the struggling New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.

Chicago, now in sole possession of first place, enters a critical three-game stretch (over the span of just 12 days) versus NFC North rivals Detroit and Minnesota.

“It was great to come out and play like that,” Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “We know that going into these division games, it’s going to take a whole other level. They know us, we know them. We play them twice. It’s going to take a whole new level of intensity.”

The Jets at least made the Bears earn a hard-fought victory. The Bills game was over by halftime.

Chicago’s defense was so dominant in its 41-9 win against Buffalo that no one missed Khalil Mack, who was inactive for the second straight week because of a right ankle injury.

Mack’s homecoming to Buffalo -- where he starred collegiately -- was a bust, but the Bears' defense more than made up for Mack’s absence.

It wasn’t even a fair fight.

The Bills started Nathan Peterman at quarterback, who, after Floyd’s second-quarter interception return for a touchdown, had thrown just as many career pick-sixes as touchdown passes: three.

But Peterman was hardly the only problem for Buffalo. Bills receivers routinely let their quarterback down by bobbling passes Bears defenders eagerly jarred loose, usually with disastrous results for Buffalo’s offense.

Up front, the Bears' defense yielded virtually nothing on the ground. Peterman actually led the Bills in rushing yards most of the afternoon, gaining most of those yards on a meaningless scramble at the very end of the first half.

The Bears’ decision to leave promising rookie defensive tackle Bilal Nichols (knee injury) back in Chicago was an unexpected setback, but veteran Akiem Hicks played like a man possessed.

Rookie linebacker Roquan Smith arguably had his best NFL game.

“It was a great performance by us,” Smith said.

And defensive backs Eddie Jackson (defensive touchdown), Adrian Amos and Kyle Fuller all had takeaways.

The Bears finally gave up their first rushing touchdown of the season. It came in the fourth quarter after an interference penalty in the end zone. It was a sneak by Peterman on third-and-goal from inside the 1.

This is the kind of defense the Bears played at the beginning of the year.

“It's not like our defense comes out here and just gets lucky,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “They practice taking the ball away. We preach it. It was great for so many guys on defense to force turnovers today.”

The fact that Chicago is doing it without Mack is encouraging, but the Bears have five division games left on the schedule. How they fare in those games will determine their season.

The offense -- led by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky -- did enough on Sunday. Trubisky made several clutch throws on third down, which made up for a first-quarter fumble (the Bears recovered) and third-quarter pick. The Bears also got Jordan Howard going with two rushing touchdowns.

But judging by the past two weeks, the Bears' defense, with a healthy Mack presumably back in the mix next week, will be the key to getting Chicago to the postseason.