SAN FRANCISCO — President Barack Obama has already given his hometown Chicago Bears the nod for best defense in the NFL.
San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis insists he is hardly one to argue with the commander in chief, especially considering Obama will be running the country from the oval office for another four years.
“I saw that,” Willis said, laughing. “Chicago’s defense, they’re playing very well right now. They have some tremendous talent on that side of the ball, but they’re playing great team defense right now. Kudos to them. But at the same time, too, we have our own defense to worry about that we’re trying to continue to make better. That’s our focus.”
San Francisco defensive tackle Ray McDonald will let the president have his say, too.
“He’s the man,” McDonald said. “You can’t argue with him. His opinion matters.”
Chicago’s dominant defense is certainly playing the very smothering, run-stopping style of football the 49ers did last season — and the form San Francisco hopes to get back to in the season’s second half as it tries to lock up a first-round playoff bye.
On Nov. 5 during Monday Night Football, a night before he was re-elected, Obama said the ball-hawking Bears have the “best defense in the league right now” led by coordinator Rod Marinelli — who calls his unit’s chemistry “special.”
The Bears (7-2) boast the talented linebacker tandem of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. On the 49ers side, it’s the duo of Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
Not that Briggs is paying too much attention to who has the best linebackers — or defense, for that matter. He knows everyone will get a glimpse come Monday at Candlestick Park.
By ranking this week, the 49ers stand third in the league with the Bears two spots back at No. 5 in overall defense. Chicago is fourth at stopping the run, San Francisco sits at seventh. Defending the pass, the Niners are fifth and the Bears 10th.
“How do I feel about it? Doesn’t change the way I play, doesn’t change the way we play over here,” Briggs said. “That’s the ranking. And the thing about a ranking is, the ranking doesn’t mean anything if you don’t get to that Super Bowl. That’s the goal, going to the Super Bowl.”
The Bears have an NFL-best 19 interceptions. No arguing these teams are awfully close. San Francisco (6-2-1) allows an NFL-low 14.1 points per game, followed by Chicago at 14.8. The Bears have 26 sacks — tied for sixth — to San Francisco’s 17.
49ers general manager Trent Baalke kept his entire starting 11 intact from last season’s defense, though linebacker Parys Haralson was lost for the season with a torn triceps muscle.
“As far as the president goes, he’s our president so you can’t say much about who he says is the best,” Willis said. “It’s his hometown, so he has every right to say them, but I guess we’ll see when it’s all said and done.”
Both teams are eager to bounce back — the 49ers from a disappointing 24-24 tie, the NFL’s first in four years, at home against the division rival Rams last week, and the Bears a 13-6 loss at Houston.
On the offensive side, both teams were busy this week preparing their backups for the key NFC matchup on the big stage after starters Jay Cutler of Chicago and San Francisco’s Alex Smith each was lost to a concussion last Sunday.
It very well could come down to Bears No. 2 Jason Campbell vs. second-year pro Colin Kaepernick under center.
There are division implications at stake, and the result could affect playoff positioning, too. San Francisco holds a narrow lead as it tries to defend its NFC West title, while the Bears are trying to create space atop the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers close behind.
“As always, I think it’s a big game,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s a huge game. I think everybody will be crowded in to watch it to see how we respond, see how the Bears respond. Football world will be watching this one and it’s a big game because it’s the next game. But, it’s a big game. I feel that our team will respond well.”
No matter the quarterback, the game goes on.
“We have to go with our game plan” Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. “They’re not going to change much based on who their quarterback is.”
The 49ers have plenty to clean up after they were 2 for 11 in third-down conversions against the Rams, allowed 458 yards and were penalized seven times for 66 yards — several of those coming at costly moments.
The last thing they want to do is make those same mistakes against Chicago’s opportunistic defense.
Earlier this season, the Bears had a three-week span with five interceptions returned for touchdowns. Charles Tillman and Briggs each had a pick and ran it back to score during a 34-18 Monday night win at Dallas.
“Takeaways and scoring — that’s basically what this defense has been about,” safety Major Wright said.
And that’s about right. Sounds an awful lot like how things went for the 49ers a year ago.
Willis will let others, like President Obama, decide who is superior.
“We let the critics and sports writers say what they must,” Willis said. “For us, we just go out there and play. Our ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl, whatever it takes that’s what we want to do. First we’ve got to win the regular-season games and see what happens from there.”