"This is a big one Billy."
–Judge Smailes, "Caddyshack"
The Chicago Bears (5-3) and the Detroit Lions (5-3) square off on Sunday at noon in easily the biggest game of the season for both teams. With the Green Bay Packers also at 5-3, there is a three-way tie at the top of the NFC North. The Lions currently hold the tiebreaker over the Bears, having won the first meeting between the two teams back in Week 4. So if Chicago loses again, they'll fall a game behind in the division without the tiebreaker, meaning they would essentially be two games back with seven to play. That would be a tough road to hoe.
But if the Bears win, they even the season series and take a one-game lead over Detroit. The tiebreaker would then revert to the best winning percentage in the division. The winner on Sunday takes the lead in that category as well.
With all of those long-term factors in play, this game, more than any other this season, will decide the fate of the Bears and define the team's chances of making the playoffs.
This will be the 168th meeting between the two franchises. Chicago owns a 96-66-6 all-time advantage in the series, including 54-24-4 at home.
The Bears got good news this week with the return of Jay Cutler, who recovered from a groin injury two weeks in advance of his initial prognosis. Cutler said this week he's fully healthy and ready to play, which sends Josh McCown back to the bench.
On the flip side, it appears the Bears will be without the services of DE Shea McClellin, who tweaked his hamstring during practice on Friday and is listed as doubtful. This is tough news for McClellin, who had a breakout performance last week with 3.0 sacks against the Packers. David Bass, a seventh-round rookie, will start in his place.
LB Lance Briggs (shoulder), LS Patrick Mannelly (calf) and DT Jeremiah Ratliff (groin) have been ruled out. LB Blake Costanzo (back), G James Brown (illness), TE Dante Rosario (ankle) and CB Charles Tillman (knee) are all probable and expected to play.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's offensive rankings
Points Scored: 2nd (30.0)
Total Offense: 10th (377.0)
Rushing Offense: 13th (120.1)
Passing Offense: 14th (256.9)
Detroit's defensive rankings
Points Allowed: 18th (24.7)
Total Defense: 25th (381.0)
Rushing Defense: 14th (108.5)
Passing Defense: 26th (272.5)
Turnover Ratio: 12th (+1)
Matchups to Watch
DT Ndamukong Suh vs. G Kyle Long
Suh dominated Long in the first contest, compiling two sacks, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble, which was returned for a touchdown. If Suh is again able to disrupt the pocket from the interior, the Bears will not be able to move the ball consistently. And with Suh's power and aggressiveness on the field, anytime he gets his hands on Cutler it could result in an injury. So it will be up to Long, as well as Roberto Garza and Matt Slauson, to contain Suh in the trenches. Long has played very well of late and has improved dramatically the past month in pass protection. If that carries over to Sunday, Cutler should have the time he needs to move the ball through the air.
WR Alshon Jeffery vs. CB Rashean Mathis
The Lions will shadow Brandon Marshall with Chris Houston. This should leave Jeffery with plenty of 1-on-1 opportunities against Mathis, as well as nickelback Darius Slay. Jeffery caught five passes for 107 yards in the first outing, so there's no reason he can't improve on those numbers at home. If he does, Chicago's offense should be able to keep pace with the Lions.
Keys to the Game
-Through eight games, RB Matt Forte has 974 yards from scrimmage, which is third most in the league. He's on pace for 1,316 rushing yards, as well as 80 catches for 632 receiving yards, all of which would be career highs. His seven rushing touchdowns through half the season are one less than his previous single-season high of eight scores, coming his rookie year. Forte has been the bell cow of Marc Trestman's offense, gashing opposing defenses on the ground and through the air. He's rushed for 80 or more yards in five of eight contests and is coming off a season-high 125-yard rushing performance against the Packers, who came into the game ranked fourth against the run. Forte is peaking right now and could be the biggest factor in this game. He had 117 yards from scrimmage in Week 4. A repeat performance would go a long way toward securing a victory.
-In the first outing, TE Martellus Bennett led the team in receptions (8) and was second in receiving yardage (90). The Lions' defense can be exploited in the middle of the field, so Bennett will once again need to be a weapon down the seams and in the red zone. That would then force Detroit's safeties to shade inside, opening up room for Marshall and Jeffery out wide.
-Chicago's offensive line had its worst outing of the season in Week 4, giving up three crucial sacks. Since then, they've shored up many of the protection issues up front and have allowed just four sacks combined the past three games. Jordan Mills is still giving up far too much pressure off the right side but the Lions are banged up at defensive end and it doesn't appear rookie pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah is going to suit up. If the offensive line plays to its potential and keeps Detroit's formidable defensive line out of the backfield, it will keep Cutler upright and allow him to duel it out with Matthew Stafford.
-Speaking of Cutler, it might behoove him to stay in the pocket as much as possible, at least for this game. Sudden bursts of movement, the type a quarterback makes when he's trying to sprint out of the pocket, can easily aggravate a groin injury. He needs to be conscience of that and not put himself at risk of re-injury. Getting down early for a sack hurts the drive but it's better than going on IR.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points Allowed: 29th (28.3)
Total Defense: 26th (381.1)
Rushing Defense: 29th (127.5)
Passing Defense: 23rd (253.6)
Turnover Ratio: 4th (+8)
Detroit's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 6th (27.1)
Total Offense: 3rd (416.0)
Rushing Offense: 21st (98.1)
Passing Offense: 2nd (317.9)
Matchups to Watch
CB Charles Tillman vs. WR Calvin Johnson
This is obvious but it truly is one of the most important 1-on-1 matchups on the field every time the Bears and Lions face off. Historically, Tillman has done a better-than-average job limiting Megatron, who is by far the best receiver in the game. This includes the Week 4 contest this year, in which Johnson was held to just four catches for 44 yards. The Bears still allowed 40 points and lost that game, which goes to show how potent the Lions' offense can be. If you add in a dominant game by Megatron, Chicago will be hard pressed to match Detroit on the scoreboard, which is why Tillman must once again be stout in coverage.
DE Julius Peppers vs. LT Riley Reiff
The Bears lost Shea McClellin this week due to a hamstring strain. Coming off the best game of his career, McClellin is unlikely to play, leaving Peppers as the only viable edge rusher on the team. He has been invisible for most the year but he came alive last week and must build on that performance. Chicago's defensive line is an injured mess and will be starting rookie David Bass on the left side. So Peppers must take advantage of second-year left tackle Riley Reiff, who is easily the Lions' worst pass blocker. If Peppers disappears in this game, Stafford will have all day to throw, which is a recipe for disaster.
Keys on Defense
-In the Week 4 outing, RB Reggie Bush compiled 173 yards from scrimmage, 139 of which came on the ground. The Bears are even worse against the run now than they were back then and have allowed 408 rushing yards the past two games combined. The interior of the defensive line has been manhandled, the two rookie linebackers are struggling with their run fits and the safeties flat out can't tackle. Lance Briggs is out again in this game, so it doesn't look good for Chicago's run defense. If coordinator Mel Tucker has anything left up his sleeve, now is the time to use it, because if Bush runs wild again, the Lions could win going away.
-QB Matthew Stafford has developed into one of the most lethal quarterbacks in the league. He's third in the league in passing yards (2,617) and seventh in passer rating (94.7). He's sixth in the NFL in third-down passer rating (96.8) and second in fourth-quarter QB rating (120.9) behind only Peyton Manning. Chicago's pass defense has been inconsistent at best and the safeties have been horrible. They are going to give up yards but a few well-time turnovers will go a long way. If they can't get takeaways though, which can be aided by some pressure up front, Stafford is going to carve them up.
-The Bears have to roll safety help over the top of Johnson, as Tim Jennings should be able to handle Kris Durham 1-on-1. Tucker has to make Megatron the priority on every play and if he doesn't, he should be given his walking papers. Outside of Johnson and Bush, the Lions have no big-play weapons, so there's no reason those two should beat Chicago's defense.
-In the red zone, the Bears need to be cognizant of TE Joseph Fauria. Used mainly as a blocker, Fauria has caught just eight passes on the season, yet five of them have gone for touchdowns. If Chicago's defense sleeps on Fauria near the goal line, he'll find pay dirt again.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.