Surprisingly, lost in the hoopla of Sunday's divisional showdown between Detroit and Chicago is something that has underscored head coach Rod Marinelli's impact on the Motor City -- his defense-first philosophy.
Between the quasi-guarantee issued by receiver Roy Williams earlier in the week and Chicago's own staunch defensive eminence, the 11 players that will face Bears' quarterback Rex Grossman and company have been mostly overlooked. Forgotten. Ignored.
That includes a dominant defensive front, led by Pro Bowler Shaun Rogers; a speedy linebacker core that punished last year's MVP into relative obscurity, and a secondary that did not allow a big play from a high-powered offense.
But if Detroit's defense can duplicate last Sunday's performance, which came against a vastly more talented Seahawks ball club, expect a shift to take place in not just the standings, but within the division's own identity.
Simply put: the Detroit Lions have the opportunity to either match or unseat Chicago as the NFC North's physical and defensive authority, a title they have enjoyed since the mid-80's and renewed in 2001 and 2005. And Marinelli, who was behind Tampa Bay's emergence as one of the league's more premier defenses, wouldn't have it any other way.
"If we walk in (to Chicago) and say this is what we're doing -- block us -- that's the way it gets when you get it because you know what you're doing; you know how to do it and this is where I'm at; I'm going to be right here and let's see if you can block us; this is our coverage and we're going to break on the ball and we're going to gang tackle and we're going to play our spot drops and that's all we force," Marinelli said after Friday's practice.
"When this defense is humming you force people to execute and you've got to execute. That's the whole premise of this defense - from day one - fundamentals: tackling, hustle, and sprinting to the ball. You protect your gaps, got to get a four man rush, disguise what you're doing, gotta feel a little blitz when it's necessary and then it's humming."
The dramatic change in disposition (under previous direction, the Lions launched out of the gates with an offensive guise) reflects who Marinelli is and what he wants.
Against Seattle, the most noticeable statistic wasn't the meager nine points managed by the Seahawks, it was an 18 percent third-down conversion rate that crippled an NFL-leading offense. In previous years, it would have been an afterthought -- for those in the stands and on the field -- that an opponent would convert a third-down opportunity. While Detroit's Cover-2 defense is effective when executed properly, it isn't just the scheme that has the team's defense rolling: it's the belief. And that is what creates a reputation.
Even before the season opener, Lions' rookie linebacker Ernie Sims was intent on 'talking trash' to Shaun Alexander, the league's MVP in 2005 and dubbed 'Mr. Touchdown' after setting the league's single-season touchdown record. Sims wasn't just verbal on the field, and frequently sent Alexander in the opposite direction from which he started. Sims finished with 10 tackles, the most for a Lions' rookie in his first game in almost 20 years.
And 'Mr. Touchdown' never reached the endzone.
Sims' energy was apparent in each of Detroit's defenders, who collectively rendered offensive mastermind and Seahawks' coach Mike Holmgren's strategy meaningless.
Although only one game into the season, statistically-speaking the Lions are already one-up on the Bears. Detroit is ranked 10th overall in league defensively (14th rush, 15th pass) while Chicago -- in its shutout of Green Bay -- is 12th (17th rush, 12th pass). But it was the quality of opponents that each team faced that makes Sunday's matchup so pivotal: there is a resounding difference between last year's NFC champions and a Packers squad that most have pegged as the division doormat.
Both offenses on Sunday will struggle to score points. The Bears relied on one offensive score, a handful of field goals and a late punt-return touchdown to put away Green Bay, while Detroit's own offensive pratfalls were well-documented in its six point total. Although both are likely to improve as the young season moves on, neither will change the complexion of the game.
As cliché as it may sound, the contest will be won by the better defense. And it might be the one that nobody is paying attention to.