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By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - At least a portion of first place in the NFC North will on the line Sunday in the Second City when the Detroit Lions visit the Chicago Bears.
Each team is 5-3 and in a three-way tie with Green Bay for the top spot in the division entering Week 10.
Injured Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who has been sidelined since suffering a torn groin muscle in the first half against Washington on Oct. 20, was hoping to return against the Lions, but that was looking more and more unlikely, especially after the way backup Josh McCown performed in a 27-20 win over Green Bay on Monday night.
"I don't think we can say I'll be out there for the Detroit game," Cutler said on his radio show earlier this week. "We're trying everything we can to get out there. It feels good, but I haven't practiced. I haven't been in a live situation.
Things turned quickly, however, and Cutler was back on the practice field by Thursday when Bears coach Marc Trestman confirmed the veteran had been cleared to play and is expected to start against the Lions.
McCown was 22-for-41 for 272 yards, two touchdowns and a 90.7 passer rating against the Pack, the best rating for a Bears quarterback against Green Bay since Kyle Orton in 2007.
The NFL's oldest rivalry wound up being a battle between backup quarterbacks when the Packers' Aaron Rodgers went down with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder on the game's first possession.
That left McCown and Seneca Wallace at the controls. McCown had a bye week to prepare for the key NFC North clash and performed mistake-free while hitting both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery for TDs.
"This means so much to our team," McCown said. "This is neat. It's special and I'm very thankful."
Matt Forte totaled 179 yards from scrimmage, including 125 on 24 carries, and ran for a touchdown for the Bears, who won in Green Bay for the first time since Oct. 7, 2007.
"We keep getting better and better," center Roberto Garza told the Bears' website. "The guys have a lot of trust in each other."
Shea McClellin had three of the team's season-high five sacks, including the chase down hit that broke Rodgers' collarbone.
Detroit had the extra week to prepare this time and is built around its high- powered offense featuring strong-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford, shifty running back Reggie Bush and dynamic receiver Calvin Johnson.
Stafford passed for 488 yards in a Week 8 31-30 last-second win over Dallas and has reached 15,000 career passing yards (15,424) in his 53rd game, fastest in NFL history.
Bush, meanwhile, ranks third in the NFL with 121.9 scrimmage yards per game, and Johnson is coming off his monster 329-yard receiving performance, the second-most ever in an NFL game and the most ever in a non-overtime contest.
Stafford lunged for a touchdown with 12 seconds left to lift the Lions over the Cowboys.
Detroit had trailed by six points with 1:02 left and started the winning drive at its own 20.
A 17-yard catch from Calvin Johnson was followed by Stafford's toss down the left sideline for Kris Durham for 40 yards. Stafford then went back to Johnson for 22 yards down to the Dallas 1 and raced to set up a spike.
However, Stafford leaped after the snap and just got the ball over the goal line. After a review determined he had crossed the plane, David Akers kicked the extra point and the Lions had a 31-30 lead with 12 seconds to play.
"There was a lot of options he had there," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "But they never even tackled him there and I was kind of confused what they were reviewing there."
Dallas had one shot after the kickoff, but didn't get anywhere with a catch and laterals as time ran out.
Johnson's game was just seven yards short of the NFL record for most receiving yards in one game, set by Flipper Anderson.
"That was just a lot of crazy out there," said Johnson. "We were all over the place. I'm just glad that I was able to be out there and do my job."
The Bears lead the all-time series between the two teams by a 96-66-5 margin and have won nine of the past 11 meetings. Detroit, however, halted a three- game skid in the series with a 40-32 win in the Motor City on Sept. 29.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Trestman and a rebuilt offensive line has elevated Chicago's offense and the Bears are second in the NFL, averaging 30.0 points per contest, and 10th in yards at 377.0 per game.
They didn't miss a beat with McCown in the lineup and that has been a bit of a surprise considering how badly Chicago has struggled in the past when Cutler was on the sidelines.
"There really wasn't any drop off," Marshall said when asked about McCown's play in comparison to Cutler. "It is hard to replace a guy like Jay, physically and his leadership but when you have guy like Josh our offense didn't skip a beat."
It looks like Cutler and the Bears are pushing it a bit this week especially after the veteran McCown, who played for the Lions in 2006, looked so confident and composed against Green Bay.
Of course, things may have played out differently if Rodgers was in the contest. The Bears probably aren't equipped to win a shootout without Cutler and who knows if he will be 100 percent come Sunday.
No matter who is under center a banged-up Bears defense will need to find a way to at least slow down Detroit's imposing playmakers.
Injuries to defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins along with linebackers Lance Briggs and DJ Williams have hurt the Bears' defense badly and the team is currently 29th in the NFL against the run, allowing 127.5 yards per game, including 139 to Bush in September.
"He's a difference-making player in the run and the pass," Trestman said when discussing Bush. "We've got to do a better job this time in working this week to try to neutralize him."
This is a big chance for the Lions to stamp themselves as a legitimate contender in the NFC North. They usually struggle on the road in general and at Soldier Field but Cutler's groin could give Detroit a larger margin of error.
The Lions have lost six straight division road games overall and five consecutive tries in Chicago.
"It's tough," said Stafford, who is 0-4 as a starter in the Second City. "They play pretty well at home like everybody in our division does. It's a big challenge."
The Lions need a signature win and Cutler's questionable health, along with the extra preparation time, increases their odds of getting it.
Detroit has come close in the past, losing three of its last five in Chi-town by six points or less. This time the Lions finally get it done, albeit barely.
"The only thing we can worry about is this week," Schwartz said. "It is an NFC North game. There are three teams tied at the top. We want our players to feel that urgency. We can't control anything other than the game we play this week."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 24, Bears 21
11/07 14:04:49 ET