Last January, the Carolina Panthers proved to many skeptics what we had thought all along: The Chicago Bears’ 11-5 season was largely the result of playing in the NFC North, where the resistance was token at best.

On Sunday night, the Bears proved the opposite by manhandling Seattle, a Super Bowl team.

With a caveat, make Chicago the best team in the NFL four weeks into the 2006 season. Normally, that would mean little – injuries and other tricks of fate can trip up anyone.

But (see above) a weak division and a schedule that presents them with Buffalo, Arizona, San Francisco and Miami to chew on in the next four weeks could mean that the Bears will spend January at home. Plus, the Cowboys, Panthers, Saints, Falcons, Redskins, Eagles and Giants will spend the next three months beating up on each other, and Sunday’s blowout of Seattle gives Chicago a home-field tiebreaker with the Seahawks.

“We definitely sent a message,” linebacker Lance Briggs said after the 37-6 mauling of the Seahawks, who were without league MVP Shaun Alexander. “We’re out to send a message every week. Every week, we gain another believer.”

Beyond Chicago, the top teams have yet to show themselves.

In the NFC, the aforementioned from the South and East haven’t demonstrated any consistency. In the AFC, the two 4-0 teams – Indianapolis and Baltimore – have enough flaws to raise questions.

So make Chicago the only dominant team right now. And remember that Pittsburgh, currently struggling, had to win its last four regular-season games last year just to make the playoffs, then went on to win as the sixth and last seed in the AFC.

An early look:

AFC

The Colts are not as good as last season’s team, which started 13-0. Their two wins at their home away from home in the Meadowlands easily could have been losses and so could the win over Jacksonville, in which they allowed 191 yards rushing. They can’t run very well and can’t stop the run – even the Jets, who had been averaging 72 yards a game, rushed for 135 yards on Sunday.

The Ravens can stop everything, and Steve McNair obviously is doing what Kyle Boller and his predecessors couldn’t – win games at QB. He’s now driven Baltimore for winning scores against a good team (the Chargers) and a bad one (the Browns.)

Still, it’s too early to make a definitive judgment because every AFC division has legitimate contenders – the Chargers and Broncos in the West; the Bengals and Steelers in addition to the Ravens in the North; the Jaguars with the Colts in the South; and New England, the old standby, in the East.

Especially fear Pittsburgh and New England because of their Super Bowl histories and San Diego and Denver because of their defenses.

Denver, which has allowed one touchdown in three games, isn’t as smothering as Chicago but it’s just as quick and the Champ Bailey-led secondary is the league’s best.

The Patriots demonstrated Sunday in New England that Doug Gabriel eventually may be the receiver they need and that Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney give them a two-headed running game.

Pittsburgh? The Steelers were off Sunday, licking their wounds and mending their mistakes. Rusty Ben Roethlisberger will get better, although it remains to be seen if he can do what he hasn’t had to in his first two seasons – carry a team in crunch time and lead in the locker room.

As for San Diego ….

Defense and running win a lot of games. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman can carry the Chargers while Philip Rivers gets on-the-job training.

NFC

After the Bears, what?

Seattle will be there despite Sunday’s thrashing in Chicago. No, Alexander wouldn’t have made much difference in that game. But the Seahawks’ schedule is almost as soft as the Bears’ and nothing close to what the presumed contenders in the South and East face – basically, each other.

The best of the rest seem to be the Falcons, Cowboys and Panthers. And perhaps the Eagles, who with T.O. gone are a lot calmer.

But all have questions aside from the obvious and are vulnerable to injuries – the Panthers started 0-2 without Steve Smith.

The Cowboys have survived their first T.O. episode, but will there be more and will Drew Bledsoe stand up against teams that can pressure him? Can Michael Vick pass Atlanta to late-game wins if he has to, as McNair has done for Baltimore?

And some of the others are dangerous, such as St. Louis, a bit lucky to be 3-1, or pesky Minnesota. Both could be wild-card teams if their betters knock each other off enough.

The Saints, with Drew Brees, don’t seem to be a fluke. Wouldn’t it be nice if Marques Colston, a seventh-round pick from Hofstra, beats out Reggie Bush, a Heisman winner from Southern California, for offensive rookie of the year?

The Redskins have played two good games, although Mark Brunell’s staying power is a question. And the Giants have enough weapons (ask the Eagles) but need to harness their egos, stop blaming the coaches and fix a defense where pickups LaVar Arrington and Sam Madison have done worse than nothing.

On the other hand, the Bears seem prepared to make all that moot.

AP-ES-10-02-06 1549EDT



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