For most Bears players, traveling to Toronto to play the 0-7 Bills is nothing more than another road trip. But not so for Israel Idonije.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Idonije emigrated to Brandon, Manitoba, where he played one season of Canadian Football in high school and was more interested in continuing with his first love, basketball, than attending a football tryout. But that was before his mother intervened.
When he was 17, Idonije had to be pushed by his mother to try out for football, but it turned out to be a push in the right direction.
"I didn't want to go," Idonije recalled. "I wanted to play basketball. (But) she's a woman of conviction. My high school coach had called her and (said), 'Hey, I think your son can play football. He's going to be something special on the football field.' She said, 'This is a door that's open, and we're going to walk through it. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, nothing lost.' So she pushed me through the door and the rest is history."
At the tryout, Idonije showed enough raw talent to attract the attention of the Manitoba University coach, and by the time he was a senior was team MVP and all-Canada.
Eight years later the 6-6, 270-pound defensive end is a full-time starter for the first time and leads the 4-3 Bears with a career-best 4.5 sacks. He and Julius Peppers will be leading the charge against a Bills offense that is 22nd at preventing sacks.
Idonije had played basketball throughout high school, idolized Michael Jordan and rooted for the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers. NFL football wasn't even a consideration.
"No, not in my wildest dreams," Idonije said. "(But) this is a great week. I get to go home and play in front of my friends and some family."
It hasn't been an easy journey. Idonije played at Manitoba University based on his performance at the tryout his mom insisted he attend, and he dominated the competition, but he didn't even get an invitation to the NFL's Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He went there anyway, with a shopping bag of his highlight tapes and handed them out to any scouts and coaches who would take them. But still he wasn't selected in the 2003 draft.
Idonije even scheduled a pro day for himself at Manitoba, and nine teams said they would attend. Only one showed up; the Cleveland Browns, who signed him, but only as an undrafted free agent. They cut him at the end of his first month.
The Bears picked him up for their practice squad, having seen him play a few months earlier in the East-West Shrine Game, the first time he had ever played American football. His only previous experience was in the Canadian game, where each team has 12 players on a 110-yard field and offenses have just three downs to move 10 yards for a first down.
"They brought me in here on Nov. 17, my birthday," Idonije said. "I flew into Chicago, in 2003, and I've been here ever since, so it's been quite a journey."
Even after he made the Bears' 53-man roster in '04, Idonije had to work his way up through the ranks. For three years he was almost exclusively a backup and an impact special-teams player. Idonije has blocked six kicks, three field goals and three extra points, including two last year. His total is fourth in NFL history since the league began keeping the statistic in 1992.
The Bears have always realized that Idonije is a rare athlete. So much so that he could run down and cover kicks even when the team asked him to bulk up to 300 pounds so he could play tackle instead of end, which they did more than once. Amazingly, he maintained the same ripped physique even at 300 pounds.
Now he seems most comfortable, and his performance as a pass rusher and a run defender has made him perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the team. Not bad for a guy who didn't play football until he was 17.
"That's saying a lot," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But the guy has been an unbelievable athlete. He can do a lot of things. Whenever you get a chance to go back home ... hopefully he'll have one of those type games that he'll remember as much as going back to Canada. Anything he does doesn't necessarily surprise you."
SERIES HISTORY: 11th regular-season meeting. Bears lead series, 6-4. Chicago won the last meeting 40-7 in 2006.
Wide receiver Nate Burleson probably summed up Sunday's Jets-Lions game as well as anyone could.
"If I wasn't playing, this is a game I would for sure be watching," he said. "There's going to be a lot of really good matchups."
The headline matchup, made so by a challenge thrown down by Jets coach Rex Ryan on Wednesday, will be a Lions' offense that has averaged 38 points a game at Ford Field against a Jets defense that Ryan called "the best in the NFL."
In his teleconference with Detroit media, Ryan was asked if he thought the Lions would reach their average against his defense. Ryan said, "Nope, I don't. I don't believe that's going to happen. Come out and prove me wrong, but I doubt it."
Thirty-eight points might be asking a lot out of the Lions' offense, but the Lions are confident they can and will be able to move the football and score points.
"We're not looking to uphold any kind of statistical number," Burleson said. "We will just see what happens. We've been playing against good defenses all year and it's going to be fun to play against another good defense. We're excited and we're juiced up. It's going to be fun."
If they are going to move the ball, it more than likely will be on the strength of quarterback Matthew Stafford's arm. The Lions haven't been able to run the ball consistently, even against defenses that are generous against the run.
The Jets have the fourth-best rushing defense in the league.
Said Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan: "They have a great scheme. They make a commitment to be great against the run and they have cornerbacks that they feel can match up with any receivers in the league. We like the challenge."
Linehan has been brilliant this season at picking apart sturdy defenses like the Jets with a diverse short passing game. He has utilized running backs, tight ends and receivers in a series of well-disguised screens and bubble passes. He has also thrown liberally out of two-tight end sets, using wide receiver Calvin Johnson to clear out the safeties and throwing crossing routes underneath.
You have to figure he would devise a similar attack for the Jets. Although, on Wednesday, neither he nor Stafford shied away from the idea of challenging Jets corners Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
"They do like to play a lot of man coverages and we usually like it when there is man coverage on Calvin," Stafford said. "Obviously, they have a lot of confidence in their guys, and matchups always matter when you are trying to decide where to throw the football. But I like my guy in those situations."
The Jets yield 15.7 points and 307.3 yards per game, 218.6 through the air. The Lions average 23.6 points, 332.9 yards and 250.6 yards passing.
"We have confidence no matter who we play," Burleson said. "There isn't a team on the schedule that we're scared of. It's a good feeling going into every week feeling like we have a chance to win."
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Lions lead series, 6-5. The Lions owned the Jets in the 1990s, winning four straight games, but the Jets have won the last two in the current century, winning in 2006 in the Meadowlands and in the inaugural season at Ford Field in 2002. The only historical game of note was in 1997. With a playoff berth on the line, the Lions beat the Jets 13-10 behind a 184-yard rushing performance by Barry Sanders. The performance pushed him over 2,000 yards for the season. And, in typical Lions' fashion, their great day was marred by tragedy. Linebacker Reggie Brown suffered a career-ending neck injury late in the game.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Bringing in Kyra Sedgwick's character and the other detectives from the popular TV drama "The Closer" may be a bit drastic, but a full-blown investigation into what's been nearly killing the Packers offense at the end of games wouldn't hurt.
Green Bay has been anything but a four-quarter team when the football is in its hands. Its maddening inability to have a closer's mentality makes the Packers' 5-3 record and first-place standing in the NFC North entering Sunday night's home game against the Dallas Cowboys somewhat remarkable.
"The biggest thing is we're just not executing as an offense," receiver Greg Jennings said. "Last year, we had our struggles, and then we came on strong — we were able to execute when it counted. We were really on top of our game and really came out with a mindset that we couldn't be stopped, and we executed as such. Whereas this year, we haven't gotten into that rhythm and that mindset to where we're not going to be stopped."
The Packers are persevering again in spite of their lethargic offense, taking a two-game winning streak into what no longer has the appeal of a midseason showdown between NFC rivals in prime time. The Cowboys are all but kaput for 2010 with a 1-6 record.
Yet, if Dallas can hang around for the first three quarters and keep the score close, there may be hope yet for the Cowboys to get their season turned around given Green Bay's sorry display of offense late in games.
Of 25 move-the-ball possessions for Green Bay in the fourth quarter or overtime in the first eight games, the Packers have scored all of 30 points. A fifth of that total came on two field goals by Mason Crosby in the final 15 minutes Sunday that enabled Green Bay to eke out a 9-0 win at the New York Jets.
Crosby's kicking leg and a bang-up job by a short-handed defense saved the day, but that didn't divert all of the attention away from the shortcomings of the offense.
Injuries to key players notwithstanding — running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley are out the rest of the season, and receiver Donald Driver has been ineffective the last two games because of a thigh injury that will keep him out Sunday — the Packers are out of sorts in their pass-first system that still has plenty of talent at quarterback Aaron Rodgers' disposal.
"We're making enough plays to win games, but there's a standard that's been set here with the kind of points we scored last season, the kind of production we put up," Rodgers said. "If you compare this year to last year, obviously we're below the standards we set last year."
The Packers rolled up a franchise-record 461 points in 2009, and all but 28 points were the doing of the offense.
Green Bay is on pace for 352 points this season, which would be its lowest output in four years. Of the 176 points scored thus far, all but 14 were tallied by the offense.
The scoring-challenged unit will be hard-pressed to come remotely close to the 433 points it threw up a season ago. Jennings has maintained that the offense is capable of scoring a minimum 28 points a game, but the Packers have attained that only once without the help of a defensive score this season — and that came way back in Week 2, a 34-7 rout of the winless Buffalo Bills.
Since then, the Packers have won two games by four points or less, lost three games by three points each and came away with that relatively lopsided upset of the Jets last weekend.
A common denominator in those six games that all went down to the wire is the Packers failed to push the pedal to the metal to either pull away from teams in games they were leading or pull out a win in games they lost in the closing seconds or overtime. They scored touchdowns in only two of 20 possessions after the third quarter.
Little wonder some irritability could be detected when cornerback Charles Woodson spoke of the three takeaways the defense had against the Jets.
"We have to turn them into points," Woodson said. "To have as many turnovers as we had, taking away momentum when they were driving, we've got to put points on the board. It was big for us to come up with those, but we feel like we left some points out there."
Rodgers' fourth-quarter passer rating of 74.6 is among the worst in the league this season. He has completed 36 of 57 passes for 392 yards and only one touchdown with two interceptions.
SERIES HISTORY: 24th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead series, 12-11. Dallas also is ahead by the slimmest of margins in points differential, 495 to 494, in the NFC foes' regular-season encounters dating to 1960. The teams are meeting for the fourth consecutive year and the third straight time in Green Bay. The Packers atoned for losses in 2007 and '08 with a 17-7 win last season. Green Bay is 6-1 against the Cowboys at Lambeau Field, including a 21-17 victory in the famed "Ice Bowl" on Dec. 31, 1967, for the NFL championship.