KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan, Jay Glazer
2006 RANKINGS: Bears: offense 15th (14th rush, 18th pass); defense 5th (9th rush, 4th pass). Lions: offense 25th (32nd rush, 7th pass); defense 27th (23rd rush, 19th pass)
PREDICTION: Bears 27-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: Chicago has clinched home-field advantage in the NFC, but is expected to play its starters for most of the game. The Lions want to attack the interior of the Bears' defensive line, where starting DTs Tommie Harris (injury) and Tank Johnson (suspension) will be missing. The problem is Detroit is down to its fourth option at running back in Arlen Harris, and he'll be playing behind a beat up offensive line. QB Jon Kitna has struggle with poor decisions downfield in recent games and the Bears have a deep and strong pass rush, so the Lions can't afford not to get help from the ground game. Detroit is also hurting on the defensive line, and Chicago will attempt to grind out the victory with RBs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson having split carries evenly the past three games.
FAST FACTS: Bears: LB Lance Briggs has double-digits in tackles in seven consecutive games. ... LB Brian Urlacher's 6.0 career sacks against Detroit is tied for his most against any opponent. Lions: Kitna has thrown at least one interception in 12 consecutive games. ... WR Roy Williams has averaged 119.5 receiving yards in his past six home games.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Just about every football coach pays lip service to the importance of special
teams, but the Bears do a lot more than talk about it.
Head coach Lovie Smith makes special teams a priority, using starters to pump talent into the kicking and coverage units. And special-teams coordinator Dave Toub combines the ample resources with a fanatical attention to detail to produce an elite group, three members of which were voted to the Pro Bowl this week.
"We just think that paying attention to detail is what separates good special teams," said Toub, who was a two-time all-Western Athletic Conference offensive lineman at Texas-El Paso in 1983-84. "Paying attention to the little things is important, and that's what makes you good."
Return specialist Devin Hester, kicker Robbie Gould and coverage ace Brendon Ayanbadejo are among the contingent of seven who will represent the Bears in the all-star game in Hawaii. It's the most special-teams Pro Bowlers in franchise history.
"We have the best special teams coach in the league," Ayanbadejo said. "We have the best special-teams unit in the league, we have the best special-teams returner in the league, we have the best special-teams kicker in the league. I guess I represent the Bears as the best special-teams player in the league."
Ayanbadejo's not just talking smack; the statistics back him up. The Bears have the NFL's top-rated special teams overall, based on a 22-category formula that evaluates all aspects of the specialty units.
Gould and Hester have also heaped frequent praise on Toub, who spent three years with the Eagles as their assistant special-teams coach/assistant defensive line coach prior to joining the Bears' staff in 2004. In two of Toub's three years in Philadelphia, the Eagles had the top-ranked special teams in the NFL. John Harbaugh, the Eagles' special-teams coordinator, was the league's Special Teams Coach of the Year in 2001.
That's where Toub learned the value of details.
"That's a Harbaugh thing," he said. "It's something that I learned from Harbaugh, and I think being with him for three years really helped mold me into what I am as a special-teams coach."
But Toub's work wouldn't produce the same results without the commitment from Smith.
"I just think you win football games that way," Smith said. "We're trying to get our offense and defense to play at a certain level, too, but I think you can gain a lot of ground when you put that type of emphasis on the special teams. Most people say that, but I think there's proof that we do it.
"We put a lot of time into our special teams, in the off-season and in how we set up our football team with players that we keep on our roster. Brendon is a perfect example of that. We brought him in based on what he was as a special-teams player."
Nearly every offensive and defensive starter is required to play on at least one of the coverage or kicking units, including 2005 Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher. Getting starters to play special teams can sometimes be a hard sell, but it's easier when the head coach makes it clear how important he considers that phase of the game.
"We try to get that point across with how we treat the special-teams players and how we set everything up around here, and I think they know now exactly how we feel about the special teams," Smith said. "After you go through a football season, you see what you can do (with special teams)."
Toub appreciates that commitment, and something as spectacular as the 6 return touchdowns by Hester is a powerful motivator. But the big plays wouldn't be possible without contributions from the unheralded core special-teamers who make their livings on Toub's teams, contributing in all phases. Besides Ayanbadejo, the group includes running back Adrian Peterson, tight end John Gilmore, safety Cameron Worrell, defensive lineman Israel Idonije, cornerback Dante Wesley and linebackers Rod Wilson and Leon Joe (before his hamstring injury).
"The fact that we've won games with special teams, that really pays off," Toub said. "They see that the end result is the big thing for us."
The Lions aren't expecting to get a break from the Chicago Bears and it's pretty obvious they aren't going to get one.
Although the Bears have the NFC North title and homefield advantage locked up with their 12-2 record, coach Lovie Smith is doing all he can to make sure they keep their edge right up to the start of the playoffs.
"We're trying to win a football game," Smith said. "So our plan is to play them just like we would any other game."
And if the Bears play as well against the Lions at Ford Field on Sunday as they played in their 34-7 victory earlier this season at Soldier Field, the Lions -- on a six-game losing streak and riddled with injuries on both lines -- could be in for another unpleasant day.
But Lions quarterback Jon Kitna says he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't want to go out and play against people who aren't playing hard," Kitna said. "I'm a competitor. I don't want to beat anybody at less than their best. That's why the pre-season's so hard.
"They'll come in and play as pros. They're used to the situation after what they went through last year."
The Lions know what to expect from the Bears, but they're less certain what they can expect from their disgruntled fans on Christmas Eve afternoon.
Unlike last year, when the fans chanted their desire to have president Matt Millen fired and even wore the colors of the visiting Cincinnati Bengals for the final home game, the attitude of this year's crowds would probably be best described as one of disinterest.
There has been talk that some of the unhappy fans might simply walk out, especially if the Lions don't get off to a fast start, and Kitna says the players can't blame them for whatever action they take to show their displeasure with the team's sixth consecutive season with 10 losses or more.
"The fans are going to look at the record," he said. "We go out and try to win every game. And this week we're going to try to win this football game and compete our butts off. That's the one thing I think (coach) Rod (Marinelli) has really instilled in this team, the competitive nature.
"It's amazing we've been in these games with what has gone on this year but we're building. I think we have a good solid core group of guys that can be added to. Then you bring back the guys that got hurt and, hopefully, build some depth and next year go into it a little bit better."
For now, the best thing that probably can happen to the Lions is to get the season over without losing any more players to injuries.