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Bears' smothering defense grounds high-flying Rams in Chicago

CHICAGO -- The big man broke the huddle with a gleam in his eye, intent on selling his newfound role as a bruising ball carrier with every fiber in his 6-foot-5, 332-pound being.

Just a week removed from his first career touchdown run, Chicago Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks desperately wanted the Los Angeles Rams to believe he was preparing for an encore with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter of Sunday night's clash of division leaders at Soldier Field. One of four Bears defenders who'd entered the offensive huddle before a third-and-goal snap from the 2-yard-line, Hicks -- who lined up as the lone halfback behind quarterback Mitchell Trubisky -- was surely the most conspicuous.

As Hicks told me afterwards, "Look -- I've been a defensive tackle since I was 15, and I never anticipated being a guy who'd take a handoff and get in the end zone. But they definitely anticipated it tonight, because everyone went for the fake. I thought I was gonna get whomped; I thought they were gonna take my head off. But I just did my thing, and it worked out perfectly."

After taking a shotgun snap, Trubisky faked a handoff to Hicks, then rolled right and lofted a scoring pass to yet another skill-position interloper: backup offensive tackle Bradley Sowell. The gadget play, which gave the Bears a 15-6 lead, would stand as the game's sole touchdown -- and the final points that would be witnessed by 61,695 fired-up fans on a chilly night in the Windy City.

That's the way they like it in Chi-Town, where Hicks and his fellow defenders are flexing in diametric opposition to the NFL's prevailing trend. And by utterly shutting down the Rams (11-2), who during Sean McVay's two seasons as head coach have emerged as the poster children for offensive explosiveness, the Bears (9-4) made a statement that they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders who are fully capable of dictating the terms of a game against typically high-scoring opponents.

"When we control what we can control, we dominate -- and you saw that tonight," said safety Eddie Jackson, who had one of the Bears' four interceptions on Sunday. "Like Coach (Matt) Nagy always says, can't nobody in the NFL mess with us when we play our game. If people aren't (figuring that out), they'd better do it quick, 'cause we're coming. We're coming every week."

Well, almost every week. The previous Sunday, Hicks' 1-yard touchdown run notwithstanding, the NFC North-leading Bears had suffered a hugely disappointing defeat to the New York Giants, falling by a 30-27 score to the last-place team in the NFC East. They were a grumpy bunch as they began preparation for the Rams, who had already clinched the NFC West and came into Chicago averaging 34.9 points per game.

"When you lose to people you're not supposed to lose to, it definitely has an effect," conceded Hicks, who had one of the Bears' three sacks on Sunday night. "You think, Man, I'm better than that, and you're pretty angry. We knew that a loss like that can really derail your season, especially when your next opponent is the best in the league. In an ideal situation, you want to be up heading into that game, your confidence high. Obviously, that wasn't the case, but we did a good job of fighting through that."

The Bears felt good about their preparation, largely because of the confidence they have in the strategic acumen on their defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio. A 60-year-old career assistant who is finally beginning to get the head-coaching buzz he has long deserved, Fangio could be this hiring cycle's answer to Bruce Arians and Mike Zimmer -- two accomplished coaches in similar circumstances who shined after getting their chance to lead an NFL locker room.

"We all have a sense that he's seen just about everything you can see in this league," Hicks said of Fangio, "and when you have a guy like that, it's not hard to get behind him. He does a great job of never putting a player outside his range. Have I ever felt like he put me in a position of weakness? No. He always has a plan, and he inspires confidence."

That said, it was hard to be too confident about facing the Rams, whose 54-51 triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs in an epic Monday Night Football showdown three weeks earlier had hastened the heartbeats of defenders across the NFL.

Hicks' reaction as he watched that Nov. 19 game? "Oh s---!" he recalled, laughing.

Last Wednesday night, as he prepared to go over the game plan with his fellow coaches, Fangio joked that he was "off to a meeting to see if we can hold the Rams under 40 points."

Privately, according to Jackson and cornerback Kyle Fuller, Fangio distributed a "goal sheet" to his players that called for them to hold L.A. under 17, which would have seemed pretty ambitious to just about anyone outside the Bears' locker room.

It turned out Fangio got way more than he asked for, as Chicago locked down the Rams like no other team had during the McVay era, limiting them to 214 yards, 14 first downs and a pair of Greg Zuerlein field goals.

"It was humbling," McVay said as he left the visitors' locker room and prepared to head to the team bus. "I was terrible. I didn't do a good job of putting guys in the right spots for them to succeed, and I need to learn from it. Vic is really, really good, and some of our best players were off tonight, but I was the main issue."

For all of the sustained excellence Rams quarterback Jared Goff has displayed during his third NFL season, he was completely discombobulated against the Bears, completing just 20 of 44 passes for 180 yards and throwing four interceptions, though one was a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. Goff was sacked three times, fumbling once (forced by -- guess who? -- Bears edge rusher/game-wrecker Khalil Mack, and recovered by L.A. guard Austin Blythe) and getting stuffed for a safety by nose tackle Eddie Goldman on the second offensive play of the second half -- breaking a 6-6 tie with what proved to be the winning points.

Veteran inside linebacker Danny Trevathan felt that as the Bears' defensive dominance mounted, some Rams players were clearly shook.

"I believe so," Trevathan said afterward. "There were some bug eyes out there."

The costliest of Goff's gaffes came with 3:52 left in the third quarter. On the previous play, Trubisky had just thrown his third interception, with strong safety John Johnson picking off a deep ball for tight end Trey Burton and returning it 35 yards to the Chicago 27.

You could almost hear the fans at Soldier Field channel L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar: Mitch don't kill my vibe.

Then, on the following play, Goff's short throw to the right sideline for Josh Reynoldswas picked off by Fuller. L.A. would reach the red zone only once more in the game, on a fourth-quarter drive that ended with Zuerlein clanging a 40-yard field-goal attempt off the right upright.

The Bears got that bounce -- and completed an impressive bounceback from their most dispiriting defeat of the season.

"A birdie after a bogey," said Fangio, who believed it was his unit's most impressive performance of 2018, "considering the opponent."

Others in the Bears' locker room were even more effusive.

"That was the best defensive performance I've ever seen," said Kyle Long, the Bears' injured guard. "Defensively, we're just unreal."

Said Trevathan: "It was just about us putting on a show for the world. We wanted to show the world we're the best defense, and we made a statement."

To Jackson, however, the Bears were only announcing to the NFL world what they already knew.

"We expected them to make some plays," he said. "For us to come out and hold them to six points? Hey, stopping them is a challenge, but it's a challenge we expected to meet. I keep telling people, we're having fun right now, and that's a beautiful thing. We just go out there and let everything hang out."

No one knows that more than Hicks, the star defensive lineman who is steadily adding wrinkles to his portfolio, from goal-line ball carrier (call him "The Fridge 2.0") to devastating decoy.

"We put on a good show," Hicks said shortly before leaving the locker room. "But we think there's more there."

After Sunday night, that proclamation sounds like an increasingly daunting prospect for the Bears' prospective playoff opponents, no matter how many prolific playmakers they might boast.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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