There is no question any longer that the Chicago Bears are for real, and the major reason is a defense that has been the league's best this season by a wide margin.

"They're great," Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said Monday of the unit that his club's offense will try to solve Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

The Bears have surrendered the fewest yards and the fewest points in the league, and it's not even close. The team ranked second in the league in total defense, the Baltimore Ravens, is allowing 19.9 more yards per game than the Bears are. The club with the No. 2 scoring defense, the Indianapolis Colts, is yielding 4.2 more points per contest than the Bears are.

The Carolina Panthers had scored at least 20 points in every game this season before facing the Bears this past Sunday. Carolina could do almost nothing offensively, as the Bears amassed eight sacks -- five of them by defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown -- and won, 13-3, to improve their record to 7-3 with their sixth straight victory. They have a two-game lead over the resurgent Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North.

The Bears have held eight of their opponents to fewer than 20 points this season, and six of them to fewer than 10. They've allowed only 110 points in their 10 games, putting them ahead of the paces of the great Bears defenses in 1985 (when the club permitted 127 points in the season's first 10 games) and '86 (120 points yielded through 10 games).

The 2000 Ravens, who had perhaps the NFL's best defense in recent memory, surrendered 105 points in the first 10 games.

And these Bears are performing at a time when the NFL's rules-makers have done everything they could to help offenses amass passing yards and points.

The key to this Chicago defense is that middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is healthy again after being plagued by hamstring problems last season. But, as Gruden said, Urlacher has plenty of help.

"Tommie Harris is a fine defensive tackle," Gruden said during his news briefing Monday. "They made a great trade with Miami to pick up a premier pass rusher [Ogunleye]. Everybody knows about Urlacher. No one talks about [outside linebacker Lance] Briggs. . . . Mike Brown was absent last year. He was hurt. He's as good a safety man as there is in the league. They can all tackle. They're very physical and fast and they're really well-rounded in terms of their pressure package, how they play coverage, their disguises. They're together. They're tight on defense and they're very good, physical players, so it will be a real challenge for us."

Easy Challenge

Gruden wasn't overly impressed with himself for winning an instant-replay challenge during Sunday's win at Atlanta for a play when the Falcons offense had 12 players on the field.

"Criminy, there are 12 guys," he said. "I should win that one."

Gruden wouldn't even credit any particular member of his staff for catching the infraction.

"There wasn't anybody who didn't catch it," he said. "There were 12 guys out there playing. This is a game that's been established since the early 1900s. It's 11 men on each team allowed to play at a time."

Bloch's Ruling By Noon Wednesday

Arbitrator Richard Bloch told the parties in the Terrell Owens case Monday that he plans to make his ruling by noon Wednesday.

Bloch heard arguments by both sides during a 14-hour hearing Friday in Philadelphia. The NFL Players Association is contesting the Eagles' four-game suspension of the controversial wide receiver for conduct detrimental to the team.

The Eagles also have indicated that they intend to deactivate Owens for the remainder of the season after his suspension ends, which the union maintains would be excessive punishment in violation of the sport's collective bargaining agreement. The union is seeking to have the suspension reduced and Owens reinstated to active playing status with the Eagles.

Seahawks Can Clinch

The NFC West race is so lopsided that the Seattle Seahawks actually can clinch the division title as soon as this weekend, with a victory by them and a loss by the St. Louis Rams. . . .

The Rams probably will be without quarterback Marc Bulger for at least three weeks and perhaps the rest of the season. He underwent an MRI exam Monday on his ailing right shoulder.

Bulger was hurt on a hit by Arizona safety Adrian Wilson during the Rams' loss to the Cardinals on Sunday. He also suffered a concussion on the play.

Bulger is tied with Dallas's Drew Bledsoe as the NFC's top-rated passer. Jamie Martin is next in line to be the St. Louis starter, but he suffered bruised ribs during the Arizona game. That could leave rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick getting at least some work with the starting offense on the practice field this week.

The Rams' problems picking up blitzes led to second-year tailback Stephen Jackson being benched late in the Cardinals game. . . .

New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards named Brooks Bollinger to start Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Edwards said that Bollinger had been cleared to play after suffering a concussion in this past Sunday's loss at Denver.

The Jets have totaled three points in their past two games. When Kliff Kingsbury appeared in mop-up duty against the Broncos, he became the fifth quarterback used by the Jets this season -- following Chad Pennington, Jay Fiedler, Bollinger and Vinny Testaverde.

Testaverde suffered a sprained ankle against the Broncos, and Kingsbury is to be Bollinger's primary backup this week . . . .

The sprained right foot of San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was in a protective boot Monday. But an MRI exam showed no significant damage, according to the team, and it's possible that he could play Sunday against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. . . .

The Miami Dolphins are to be without middle linebacker Zach Thomas for at least two games because of a separated shoulder. . . . San Francisco defensive lineman Bryant Young is to be sidelined three to six weeks by a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee. . . .

New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan and center Shaun O'Hara underwent MRI exams Monday. Strahan suffered a pinched nerve during Sunday's triumph over Philadelphia, and O'Hara hurt his ankle. . . .

After resisting for weeks the temptation to sit down veteran Trent Dilfer and play rookie quarterback Charlie Frye, Cleveland Coach Romeo Crennel worked Frye into the playing-time mix during the Browns' win Sunday over the Dolphins. Frye played three series, one in the second quarter and two in the fourth quarter. Dilfer said he didn't like the arrangement, but Crennel indicated that he plans to continue to find spots to use Frye the rest of the season. . . .

Detroit linebacker Teddy Lehman was placed on the injured reserve list because of a foot injury, ending his season. . . .

Rams rookie cornerback Ronald Bartell Jr., a second-round draft pick in April out of Howard University, made his first NFL start Sunday. . . .

Rams punter Bryan Barker issued a public apology Monday after the team received complaints about Barker practicing his punting during halftime Sunday while a Veterans Day ceremony still was taking place on the field.

Lions Seeking Nearly $10.2 Million From Rogers

The Lions are seeking to have wide receiver Charles Rogers return nearly $10.2 million of the $14.4 million in bonus money that he received in his rookie contract with the team signed in 2003. The case appears headed to arbitration, with the NFL Players Association opposing the Lions' attempt to recoup the money.

Rogers was suspended for four games this season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, and his contact contains a provision enabling the Lions to force him to return the bonus money if he's suspended for that reason. The union, however, maintains that the sport's collective bargaining agreement supersedes Rogers's contract, and the club is prohibited under the terms of the labor deal from punishing Rogers for a failed drug test. Under the terms of the labor agreement, only the league can punish a player for failing a drug test. . . .

Bears President Ted Phillips told a Chicago radio station that "stiff fines" could be levied by the league on offensive linemen Olin Kreutz and Fred Miller. Kreutz broke Miller's jaw in a fight during a recent players' outing to an FBI shooting range in Chicago.

Young, P. Simms At Odds

Former NFL quarterbacks turned television analysts Steve Young and Phil Simms are at odds over comments that Young made Sunday about Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, Phil's son.

During ESPN's pregame show, Young questioned whether Chris Simms has the mental toughness to be a successful NFL quarterback, saying he worries about that because Simms grew up in a "laissez-faire" atmosphere.

Phil Simms took exception and fired back Monday on a conference call with reporters, saying he didn't raise his son that way and Young might know more if he followed the league more than one day per week.

Young's comments were oddly timed, with Chris Simms having recovered from a rocky beginning after taking over as Tampa's starter for the injured Brian Griese. When Young spoke, Simms was coming off a superb performance in a win over the Redskins, and Sunday he engineered his second straight triumph as the Buccaneers improved their record to 7-3 with a victory at Atlanta. The Buccaneers totaled 66 points in those two games.

Aikman, White on Hall List

Former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and late Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina defensive end Reggie White were among the list of 25 Hall of Fame semifinalists announced today. Selectors pared down a preliminary list of 112 nominees.

Also on the list are former Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, former Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell and two former Redskins players, guard Russ Grimm and wideout Art Monk. The list will be trimmed to 13 finalists who will be considered, along with seniors committee nominees John Madden and Rayfield Wright, during Super Bowl week.