LAST WEEK: The Bears pulled back into the playoff hunt with a 30-24 statement win on the road versus the Philadelphia Eagles. Matt Forte had another solid performance, posting 150 total yards, while Jay Cutler was efficient and mistake-free, completing 18 of 31 passes for 208 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. The offensive line dominated throughout and did not give up a sack -- only the second game Cutler has gone without being sacked since coming to Chicago. The team got a big boost with the return of Earl Bennett, who missed the previous five games with a bruised chest. He led all receivers with 5 receptions, 95 yards and 1 TD. Defensively, Chicago did a good job of containing Michael Vick, holding him to just 213 passing yards, 34 rushing yards and 0 TDs. The Bears' young safeties didn't allow any deep passes, limiting Eagles' receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to just 79 total yards. At 5-3, Chicago currently holds the sixth and final NFC playoff spot.
LOOKING FORWARD: The Bears will face off against the Lions in a re-match from Week 5, when Detroit took Chicago behind the woodshed. In that game, the Lions' offense did most of their damage on two big plays -- an 88-yard Jahvid Best run and a 73-yard Calvin Johnson reception, both of which went for touchdowns. Obviously, the defense can't allow that to happen again. On offense, Chicago will be starting the same five players on the offensive line for the fourth straight game. The unit is jelling rapidly, opening holes in the run game for Forte and limiting pressure on Cutler. In fact, in the three games this unit has started together, they've given up just three sacks, compared to 14 in the previous five contests. The Lions' defensive line ate up tackle Frank Omiyale in the first meeting, yet he'll be nowhere near the field on Sunday. If this maturing offensive line can keep Suh, Avril, Vanden Bosch and company in check, the team will have a great shot at picking up their fourth straight victory and pulling into a tie with the Lions for second place in the NFC North.
FUN STAT: The Bears' 52 all-time wins at home (52-24-4) against Detroit are the most against any NFL team. Chicago has won five out of the last six meetings with the Lions at Soldier Field, and six of eight since the new Soldier Field opened in 2003.
LAST WEEK: The Lions used the bye to lick their wounds and evaluate where they are at the mid-point of the season. They used the week to evaluate personnel, and that included the signing of former running back Kevin Smith, who will join the team for his second tour of duty with the franchise. A former third-round pick of the team in 2008, a knee injury last year derailed Smith's campaign and the team opted not to tender him a contract in 2011. He was among 23 players the Lions tried out, and according to reports, wow'ed the team's coaching staff. Even with RB Jahvid Best still sidelined (concussion), Smith will have to earn his way through the depth chart. He practiced with the third-team on Wednesday.
LOOKING FORWARD: The Lions already equaled last year's win total (6), with reason for optimism and sprinkles of doubt. Armed with a healthy Matthew Stafford, a career-year for WR Calvin Johnson and an aggressive, unforgiving defense, the team seems ripe to make a run for its first post-season berth since 1999. But that challenge will begin with next weekend's tilt at Chicago, where divisional rival and the fellow wild card competitor Bears are quickly putting things together. The game is pivotal to Detroit's playoff aspirations, and kick-starts a difficult second-half that includes two contests against undefeated Green Bay, and road trips to New Orleans and Oakland. The requirement of a rushing attack, something the team has lacked most of the season, has become even more critical -- with no clear answer in sight
FUN STAT: Although the Lions didn't re-sign him (until this week), Kevin Smith has been the most successful running back Detroit has had available in its backfield since James Stewart led the team in rushing in 2002.
LAST WEEK: You could almost cut-and-paste this segment in from previous weeks. Just replace last week's numbers with this week's numbers and, voila. Offensively, Aaron Rodgers continued his full-court press of the MVP race by completing 21-of-26 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns. The only thing keeping Rodgers' from another monster game was his defense. The Packers had two pick-sixes in the first quarter, which kept Rodgers on the sideline for a large segment of the first half. Rodgers' passer rating of 145.8 was the third-highest of his career — his 146.5 the previous game against Minnesota ranks No. 2 on the list. He has an astounding 24 touchdown passes against three interceptions this season. Rodgers' brilliance is a necessity because when Green Bay's secondary isn't coming up with interceptions, it's allowing big plays at an astounding rate. They've given up 38 completions of 20-plus yards in eight games. They allowed 44 completions of 20-plus yards in all 16 games last year.
LOOKING FORWARD: For the second time in three games, the Packers will face the Vikings. Last week, the Packers had the bye week to get ready for San Diego. This week, Minnesota had the bye to get ready for Green Bay. If the Packers are going to repeat as champions, they're going to have to get the defense together. This would be a fine week to start, because Adrian Peterson ran wild in the Week 7 game and rookie quarterback Christian Ponder made enough plays to make the game interesting.
FUN STAT: The Packers increased their league-high scoring output to 34.4 points per game, 2.5 points ahead of second-ranked New Orleans. That puts Green Bay on pace for 550 points, which would be the third-most in NFL history behind the 2007 Patriots' output of 589 points and the 1998 Vikings' total of 556. Last week against San Diego, the Packers scored 28 points in the first half. That's the third time this season the Packers have scored at least 28 in the opening two quarters. The rest of the league combined has done that three times.
LAST WEEK: With the Vikings on their bye last weekend, the main issue was healing up for the players and self-scouting and a few days off for the coaches. After a week off for the healthy players, they returned to practice on Monday to go over specific deficiencies that showed up in the self-scout conducted the previous week. They did find out a few things from their previous games with rookie Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback: They are able to stretch the field more in the passing game and they are able to get him rolled out of pocket with great success, as Ponder is more mobile than former starter Donovan McNabb at this point in his career.
LOOKING FORWARD: With a Monday night game upcoming at Lambeau Field, the Vikings start preparations in earnest on Thursday. Despite starting only two games, Ponder will already be facing an NFL opponent for the second time as a starter (in a scheduling oddity, the Vikings will have played the Packers two times in three games). He had limited success against the Packers in the first meeting at Mall of America Field – his completion percentage was a paltry 41 percent, but the offense did convert a season-high 56 percent of its third downs. While the Packers' passing defense presents opportunities for Ponder and the Vikings, the bigger issue for Minnesota will be slowing down Aaron Rodgers, who is on an all-time NFL record pace for passer rating and post-Super Bowl success.
FUN STAT: Apparently the American football public likes a good Vikings-Packers matchup. This will be the sixth time in seven seasons that Minnesota and Green Bay have met in prime time and the fourth time in seven seasons that the matchup is on Monday Night Football.
Jeremy Stoltz is publisher of Bear Report, Nate Caminata is publisher of Roar Report, Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and Tim Yotter is publisher of Vikings Update.