NFL Preview - Chicago (8-3) at Detroit (2-9)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A signature win and undefeated record within the division have put the Chicago Bears in the driver's seat of the NFC North heading into the season's final month. The surprise front-runners now try to build off possibly their best performance of the year when they march into Ford Field this Sunday to battle a hard-luck Detroit Lions team that's once again having to deal with an injury at the quarterback position.
Despite having prevailed in seven of their first 10 games of this 2010 campaign, the Bears still had difficulty selling themselves as a bona fide playoff contender to the general public, primarily due to a questionable schedule and an offense that's been plagued by inconsistency throughout the season. Chicago stated its case in a big way this past week, however, by delivering a convincing 31-26 victory over a previously-surging Philadelphia squad.
The win was the fourth in a row for the Bears, who haven't reached the postseason since a Super Bowl run in 2006, and moved Lovie Smith's charges a game in front of Green Bay for the NFC South's top spot after the Packers fell to conference-leading Atlanta last Sunday.
A defense that's been rock-solid all year long came through once more for Chicago in Week 12, generating four sacks of the Eagles' Michael Vick and harassing the comeback quarterback into his first interception of the season. The offense did its part as well, getting four touchdown passes out of field general Jay Cutler and 117 rushing yards on just 14 carries from running back Matt Forte.
While the Bears have restored themselves to legitimacy following three straight down years, their longtime rivals from the Great Lakes Region continue to endure rough times. The Lions secured their 10th consecutive losing season with a 45-24 Thanksgiving Day setback to powerhouse New England and enter Sunday's clash having dropped four in a row.
Having already spent the majority of 2010 without No. 1 quarterback Matthew Stafford due to a twice-separated shoulder, Detroit will also be without capable understudy Shaun Hill for the time being after the veteran fractured the index finger on his right throwing hand against the Patriots. As a result, the Lions will be forced to pin their hopes on project Drew Stanton, a former Michigan State star who's seen little game action since being taken by the team in the second round of the 2007 draft.
Stanton will be making the second start of his undistinguished four-year career on Sunday, having previously filled in for an ailing Stafford in a 20-6 defeat at San Francisco in the penultimate game of last season. The 26-year- old did do a competent job when pressed into relief duty in a loss to the New York Giants back in Week 6, a contest in which Hill was knocked out with a broken left arm, throwing for 222 yards and a touchdown with one interception on 19-of-34 passing.
He'll be attempting to get the Lions to snap a painfully-long 14-game losing streak against fellow NFC North inhabitants, which included a disputed 19-14 verdict to the Bears in Chicago in this year's season opener. Detroit had an apparent go-ahead touchdown pass from Hill to Calvin Johnson with 31 seconds remaining in that matchup, but the score was overturned when the replay official ruled the star wide receiver did not maintain possession throughout the catch.
The Lions' last triumph over a division foe came against the Bears back on Oct. 28, 2007, a 16-7 decision at Soldier Field.
Chicago, on the other hand, has won all three of its bouts versus NFC North members this season, having also bested both Green Bay and Minnesota at home.
Chicago leads the all-time series with Detroit, which dates back to the 1930 season, by a 92-64-5 count and have won the last five matchups between the storied rivals following the previously-noted 19-14 decision at Solider Field in the season opener. The Bears put together home-and-home sweeps of the Lions in both 2008 and 2009, with Detroit taking both meetings in 2007 that included a 37-27 victory at Ford Field.
Smith is 9-4 against the Lions during his tenure as the Bears' head coach, while Detroit's Jim Schwartz has never beaten either Smith or Chicago in three lifetime tries.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
After failing to establish an effective ground game over the season's first half, Chicago has actually done a very solid job running the ball in recent weeks. The team has rushed for at least 130 yards in each of its past three wins, with primary carrier Forte (684 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 7 total TD) backing up a workmanlike 25-attempt, 97-yard effort in a Week 11 ousting of Miami with last Sunday's outstanding showing against the Eagles. The third- year pro is also an accomplished pass-catcher out of the backfield, as the Lions found out when he racked up a career-high 151 receiving yards and scored two touchdowns on seven grabs in the Week 1 meeting. Cutler (2311 passing yards, 16 TD, 10 INT), who compiled a season-best 372 passing yards in that season-opening tilt, has been good as well during the Bears' current winning run, having thrown for nine scores with just three interceptions over the four-game tear. Second-year wideout Johnny Knox (40 receptions, 740 yards, 2 TD) has been both Cutler's favorite target and the offense's main deep threat, with wide receivers Devin Hester (31 receptions, 2 TD) and Earl Bennett (32 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Greg Olsen (29 receptions, 5 TD) looming as secondary options in a spread-it-around system. The front line has been shaky in protection over the course of this season, and Cutler was sacked four times by Detroit earlier in the year.
Chicago's improved rushing attack could be in for another efficient day this week, as the Lions rank just 24th in the NFL in run defense (128.6 ypg) and are giving up an average of 4.6 yards per carry to opponents. New England did most of its damage via the air on Thanksgiving, however, with quarterback Tom Brady carving up a submissive Detroit secondary for 341 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Patriots' barrage. Cornerback Alphonso Smith (37 tackles, 5 INT, 8 PD) had an especially forgettable holiday for the Lions, with the over-aggressive coverman being personally responsible for three of those scores. The unit does have one obvious strength in its ability to pressure the quarterback, however, having recorded a respectable 28 sacks for the year and receiving a monster debut season from rookie tackle Ndamukong Suh (45 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT). The team will likely be without one of its best pass rushers in veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch (49 tackles, 4 sacks), whose status is in doubt due to a neck problem, but reserve Lawrence Jackson (14 tackles, 3.5 sacks) has been cleared to practice after being held out of the New England game with a concussion. He had picked up 2 1/2 sacks in his last two contests prior to missing Week 12.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
The Lions have been a pass-oriented team this season, and it will be interesting to see if or how much they deviate from the game plan with the lightly-seasoned Stanton (233 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) under center. Detroit is averaging only 84.9 rushing yards per game (28th overall) for the year, but did produce a season-best 129 yards on the ground against New England despite rookie speedster Jahvid Best (382 rushing yards, 49 receptions, 5 total TD) not having a touch as he continues to deal with a lingering turf toe ailment. Serviceable backup Maurice Morris (96 rushing yards, 2 TD, 16 receptions) had 55 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries in Best's place, however, and figures to carry the load in the backfield again this week. Stanton won't be lacking quality players to throw to in his second lifetime start, as Johnson (59 receptions, 806 yards) is one of the game's premier receivers and leads the NFC with 11 touchdown catches, while fellow wideout Nate Burleson (40 receptions, 4 TD) and second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew (55 receptions, 3 TD) have also been reliable sources for the league's No. 6 passing offense (257.8 ypg). Tight end Tony Scheffler (32 receptions, 1 TD), who had a team-best six catches for 43 yards in the Week 1 loss to Chicago, is expected to return from a rib injury that kept him out on Thanksgiving and provide another outlet for Stanton.
Don't expect the injury-plagued Lions to move down the field with ease on a fierce Chicago stop unit that's yielded the second-fewest points in the NFL (15.6 ppg), stands first in pass efficiency defense, second against the run (80.5 ypg) and fourth in total yards allowed (300.2 ypg). The Bears have two tremendously-rangy linebackers in middle man Brian Urlacher (77 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) and weakside starter Lance Briggs (58 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) who can cut off both the running and passing lanes, as well as a pair of excellent rush ends in offseason acquisition Julius Peppers (34 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) and Israel Idonije (32 tackles, 7 sacks). Cornerbacks Charles Tillman (58 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) and Tim Jennings (45 tackles, 1 INT) have also held their own in a group coordinated by one-time Detroit head coach Rod Marinelli, while nickel back D.J. Moore (28 tackles) has come up with a team- best four of Chicago's season total of 16 interceptions, tied for second-most in the league. The Bears have permitted just eight passing touchdowns on the season, second only to New Orleans for the least in the NFL.
With Detroit having to go deep down the depth chart at quarterback and possibly being without one its better playmakers in Best, the Chicago defense becomes a must-play this week. The Bears may rely more on the running game in this matchup, which bodes very well for Forte's prospects but limits those of Cutler, who's more of a lower-end option at his position. Knox is still worth using at wide receiver, however, and Hester's value is at its highest in leagues that will count the dangerous return man's yardage. As for the Lions, Johnson should remain in weekly lineups but could see his numbers shrink due to the quarterback switch and Chicago's strong play against the pass, and Morris is the best bet for production at the running back spot. Steer clear of Stanton and keep Burleson on the bench for this game, though Pettigrew offers some upside at tight end. Detroit kicker Jason Hanson won't play again this week as he continues to recover from a knee injury, leaving the unappealing Dave Rayner to handle those duties.
The Bears also faced a team coerced into using a third-string quarterback a few weeks back and pitched a shutout against the Tyler Thigpen-led Miami Dolphins, and a similar outcome could be in store this time around. The short- handed Lions will have a tough time getting anything going on Chicago's sturdy defense, and they're simply not good enough on that side of the ball to hold an opponent down for an entire game. Look for the Bears to play it relatively conservative and rely on the defense and field position to grind out another victory to help solidify their suddenly very real playoff aspirations.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 17, Lions 9
12/02 12:47:02 ET