LONDON — The Bears talked about it so much you hate to wonder where they would be if they didn't reach 4-3 before their week off.
Fortunately, they don't have to consider that now because the goal coach Lovie Smith set forth after a dismal effort in Detroit was realized across the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday as the Bears beat up on the Buccaneers in the fifth regular-season game played at Wembley Stadium. The 24-18 victory before 76,981 proves the Bears' preparation arriving Friday morning was just fine and that changing six time zones in a nearly 4,000-mile journey was no big deal.
Smith focused on getting to 4-3 so much it became evident he's already tuned into an early look at the playoff race after the Bears fell back in the NFC North behind the unbeaten Packers. In two weeks, the Bears have picked up two games on the Lions (5-2).
Smith's bunch has consecutive wins. They went into the break last season on a two-game skid but with the same record.
"It's nice to be on a little streak, so this is a little different," middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "I hope we can build on this and get going."
The Bears return to Chicago on a charter flight Monday afternoon, able to enjoy the evening after the victory. The question is can they improve between now and the time they play the Eagles on Nov. 7 in Philadelphia?
Matt Forte had another terrific game, rushing for 145 yards and scoring on a 32-yard run. He also caught a 36-yard pass that set up an insurance field goal. On defense, the Bears picked off Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman four times, with nickel back D.J. Moore sealing the win with an interception at the Bears' 25-yard line with 26 seconds to play.
The four takeaways were a season high. It marked just the third game the defense has had more than one, the result of a consistent pass rush on Freeman, who completed 29 of 51 passes for 264 yards. The Bucs' running game was basically shot when running back Earnest Graham went out early with an ankle injury and fullback Erik Lorig left with a shoulder injury. That left them with one back on their roster — Kregg Lumpkin — as LeGarrette Blount was out with a knee sprain.
Forte became the first NFL player since 2004 to have 1,000 yards from scrimmage through the first seven games. The Bears have proven they can run the ball with a reworked offensive line. With 672 yards, Forte is on pace to rush for 1,536, and Marion Barber, who had a 12-yard touchdown run, is getting into a groove. The offense has to find a balance by improving its pass blocking.
"Get that offensive line back where we need to be to do the things that we need down the field and take some shots," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "Combine that with the way Matt is playing, we're definitely heading in the right direction."
The Bears managed to make a runaway close, turning a 21-5 lead early in the third quarter into a nailbiter. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz continued dialing pass plays down the stretch, and Corey Lynch's interception of Cutler in the fourth quarter set up a Bucs touchdown that got them within 21-11.
Another quick score when Dezmon Briscoe found a soft spot in the zone near safety Chris Harris got the Bucs within 21-18 with 7:17 remaining. The long swing pass to Forte set up a Robbie Gould field goal, and then Moore ended the game on the pick set up by a stunt and pressure from Julius Peppers.
Martz had called 21 runs and 18 passes in building a 16-point lead. The rest of the way, when the Bears needed to grind the win out, he called 16 passes and 11 runs not counting the Cutler kneel-down. Players defended the play selection, saying the Bucs linebackers were shooting gaps and taking outside runs away.
"I thought we were trying to put points on the board late," Smith said. "You like to have a couple of those plays back. Not pleased with turnovers. Besides that, I'm OK."
Smith is OK because the Bears positioned themselves for a second-half run.
"You never want to go in a bye week on a loss," Peppers said. "It was huge for playoff positioning. So, it was huge on a lot of different fronts."
Twitter @BradBiggsCopyright © 2015, RedEye