— AGO - The Tennessee Titans may or may not threaten the 1972 Miami Dolphins. But after running their 2008 record to 9-0 with a disciplined 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears, it has to be clear to all doubters that these Titans are a first-rate football team, one that showed Sunday they are not only tough but versatile.
The Bears took away Tennessee's running game, holding the Titans to just 20 yards rushing. So Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins threw for 289.
Kyle Vanden Bosch, a stalwart on Tennessee's defensive line, didn't play because of a groin injury. His replacement at right end, Dave Ball, registered one of the Titans' two sacks of Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman.
The Titans decisively won the battle of field position, controlling Devin Hester, the Bears' All-Pro return threat, and thus the game.
Grossman, subbing for Kyle Orton, will almost surely never be confused with Joe Montana. But the few Rex apologists might note that he had precious few chances Sunday. After the Bears' first drive went for a score, seven of the Bears' ensuring 12 drives began with Chicago pinned back at or inside its own 15.
As the game drew to a close, Jevon Kearse, the Titans' defensive end, turned his uniform number, 90, to "9-0," with a little well-placed tape.
It's fun around the Titans' locker room right now. The Vince Young drama earlier in the year? Seems a long time ago.
"I'm enjoying it," Collins, who has seen the highs (a Super Bowl run with the New York Giants) and lows (Oakland Raiders) of professional football, said afterward, sporting a gash across the bridge of his nose — a story that prompted him to laugh in telling it.
"I shot a buck the other night with a muzzle loader," he said, a six-pointer on Friday, "and the thing kicked back and popped me."
"I got him," Collins said of the deer.
Not to look too far ahead but, at 9-0, the Titans have games remaining with, in order: Jacksonville, the New York Jets, Detroit, Cleveland, Houston, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Which of those games is not winnable?
"It's not an issue," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said of being 9-0, clearly seeking to temper expectations.
He also said: "It's nice to be able to win a ballgame when you don't play well. We sucked."
Then again, it helps when the other team starts Rex Grossman.
Bears fans are no dummies. Having seen Rex's limitations over the past two seasons, 3,209 tickets in a stadium that seats just over 60,000 went unused Sunday. When you go into a game 5-3, atop your division and more than 5 percent of your fans don't bother showing up -- that's telling.
So, too, was an entirely unscientific survey of the seats below the Soldier Field press box, which showed fans sporting multiple current and former Bears jerseys: Matt Forte, Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester, Lance Briggs, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary.
And one guy, just one, in a Rex Grossman jersey.
Who cheered long and loud on Chicago's first drive, the Bears going 75 yards in 14 plays, the drive keyed by a 4th and 1 play at the Tennessee 15, Chicago running back Forte ripping off an eight-yard run.
Three plays later, Grossman hooked up with Forte for a 5-yard TD, Rex putting the ball where only Forte could get it. Rex on the drive: Six of 9, a passer rating of 118.3.
On the first play of Chicago's second drive, Marty Booker covered on the left sideline, Rex played it smart — throwing the ball out of bounds. Maybe, just maybe, this was a new, different, better Rex.
By halftime, Rex had thrown an interception, his rating had dropped to a more Rex-like 55.4 and the Titans had made it a 7-7 game on a 10-yard Collins to Bo Scaife touchdown pass midway through the second quarter.
At the half, the Titans, who had come into the game averaging 149.1 yards per game rushing, third-best in the league, had been held by the Bears' defense to minus-5 on 13 carries. Collins, however, was making like Joe Montana –- 17 of 23 for 180 yards and a 110.8 rating.
On the first drive of the third quarter, the Titans made it 14-7, and made it look easy –- one running play for all of 2 yards, Collins a perfect 5-for-5 for 54 yards and his second TD pass of the day, 12 yards to Justin Gage.
The Bears kept going nowhere. After that first drive, for 75 yards, the Bears' next nine drives went for a net gain of 64 -– the nine drives ending in one interception and eight punts.
In part, that was on Grossman. In part, too, it was due to Tennessee punter Craig Hentrich. He punted eight times, the longest for 55 yards, the average 37.8, repeatedly giving Chicago poor field position, including one punt downed at the Bears' 2.
"I consider myself a defensive player," Hentrich said. "I take pride in pinning them back and letting the defense do its work."
As the third quarter wound to an end, the score still 14-7, snow began to swirl inside the stadium. That, at least, drew cheers from the Rex boo-birds.
An 11-play, 52-yard Tennessee drive made it 21-7 with 12 minutes to go.
The game seemed all but over. But the Bears made it 21-14 with 4:55 to go, Grossman scoring on a 1-yard run to cap a 68-yard drive that included a 29-yard connection with Hester.
The Bears' defense forced a Titans' punt and, with 3:23 to go, the Bears got the ball back on the Tennessee 41.
It was just a few steps north of this stadium last Tuesday, in Grant Park, that thousands gathered to hear the president-elect deliver a stirring election eve speech.
Yes we can, went the refrain that evening.
No, he could not.
Four plays could not bring 10 yards, passes on third and fourth downs falling incomplete. For the game, Grossman finished 20 of 37 for 173 yards and a 64.4 rating.
"There were opportunities out there to make some plays and they weren't made, for whatever reason," he said later. "That was the difference in the game."
Collins finished 30 of 41 with the two touchdowns and no interceptions. His final rating: a stellar 108.7.
"I know they didn't run the ball that much but when you give up 7-yard passes, 10-yard passes and guys are running free and unblocked –- we're just not getting there," Bears' defensive end Alex Brown said, adding, "I don't know. I'm going to stop here before I say something I regret tomorrow."
It was way more fun over in that Tennessee locker room.
"I don't see any pressure," Titans' linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "We're in the driver's seat."
Is this, Collins was asked, the best time you've been on?
He said, "We're getting there."