NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Setting his clock back six years Sunday at LP Field, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher stayed stride for stride with Titans running back Chris Johnson covering a deep pass route down the sideline.
Johnson, who once clocked 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash, boasts some of the fastest feet in the NFL. Urlacher, 13 seasons removed from the days when he played defensive back in college, possesses a balky left knee that has been the source of international intrigue and considerable doubt.
Using the sideline as his friend, Urlacher kept up with his fleet-footed enemy well enough that he was in perfect position to break up Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's lofted pass.
Urlacher returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown, forced one fumble and recovered another in a game he acknowledged was his best of the season. But Urlacher's most significant display of athleticism came when the 34-year-old isolated on the league's speediest running back and won the battle.
When Urlacher makes plays like the Urlacher we recognize, the Bears look like a defense with no weaknesses and a team with few peers.
The only time Urlacher looked quicker in a 51-20 victory was when he raced over to congratulate emerging NFL defensive player of the year candidate Charles Tillman after Tillman's fourth forced fumble. Together they celebrated a day of fun and ferocity when the Bears defense that created five turnovers turned Music City into Gnashville.
Surely it's just a coincidence that the Bears reached midseason in a city halfway to New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII. But if the Bears offense uses this as a springboard, Sunday's game might represent more than a metaphor. Matt Forte surpassed 100 yards rushing. Jay Cutler posted a 138.1 passer rating. Brandon Marshall caught nine passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
Yet no one could stop talking about a Bears defense so feared that Hasselbeck admitted expecting the Titans not to worry about turnovers was "like telling someone not to leave a putt short on the green.''
Tennessee's bad case of the yips started early and continued often.
"The big plays, the takeaways, I've never been around anything like this in high school or college at any level," Urlacher said. "Every week, it seems someone else is doing it."
Much to the delight of Urlacher's teammates, this week it was the emotional leader of Lovie Smith's best defense ever. Sometime after Corey Wootton scooped up Sherrick McManis' block of Brett Kern's punt to score a 5-yard touchdown, Urlacher told Tillman he wanted in on the end-zone action.
"I said, 'Hey, call it, man. The tongue has the power of life or death. Say it, speak it, believe it,' " Tillman said.
When Hasselbeck took the shotgun snap on first-and-10, Urlacher did it with instincts and experience — Urlacher's biggest asset at this stage. He noticed Lance Briggs had jumped the running back and floated in front of wide receiver Damian Williams.
"I was just reading his eyes trying to get underneath one of those guys running across the middle," Urlacher said.
Hasselbeck never saw Urlacher, who caught the pass and lumbered into the open field like so many Bears defenders had before him. He sidestepped Hasselbeck because NFL quarterbacks just aren't supposed to tackle 258-pound linebackers, received a nice block from Israel Idonije and ambled across the goal line.
"I made it," Urlacher kidded.
Was there any doubt?
"No," Julius Peppers said. "He does it in practice all the time."
Ho-hum. Urlacher's pick-six made the Bears the first team in NFL history with seven interception returns for touchdowns in the first eight games. Yet, to a man, the Bears acted more thrilled about Urlacher making progress than their defense making history. They realize what a productive Urlacher means to a season looking more special every Sunday.
"We have been waiting for Brian to really step up like that," Smith said.
Added safety Chris Conte: "It's been a long road. To see him come back and make a play like that, we're all proud of him."
Respect and affection for Urlacher run deep enough to wonder if his uncertain future helps motivate a team driven to win a Super Bowl ring for the aging face of the franchise. No, Urlacher's new mustache doesn't include flecks of gray. But nobody except Urlacher knows how healthy his knee really is, and a contract paying Urlacher $7.5 million expires in eight games.
The more Urlacher plays as he did in a blowout of Titanic proportions, the more likely No. 54 will be around for more days like Sunday.
"There are going to be times we can't do this," Urlacher said. "But we're going to keep trying every week."
For a football team thinking Super Bowl, it never gets old.