The Bears are heading to Motown for Sunday's game against the Lions with a full head of steam, riding a four-game winning streak that includes a 31-26 victory over the Eagles, arguably the most impressive win in what has been an extremely easy schedule.
But the Bears are starting to look like serious contenders rather than pretenders, mostly because they finally got a playoff-caliber performance from an offense that has, for most of the season been a burden to the outstanding defense and special teams.
The offensive surge couldn't have come at a better time because the defense allowed 398 total yards against the Eagles. The offensive outburst helped give the Bears sole possession of first place in the NFC North at 8-3.
Quarterback Jay Cutler's 146.2 passer rating, the highest of his five-year NFL career, included four touchdown passes, 247 yards on 14 of 21 completions and no interceptions.
"Jay Cutler was outstanding throughout," coach Lovie Smith said. "Whether he was throwing the football or taking off running the ball, I just felt like he was in total control of our offense, distributing the ball around.
"With him playing like that, we're going to be hard to beat."
The Bears were undefeated in November for the first time since the 2005 team also went 4-0 en route to an 11-5 season.
"I would definitely say our arrow's pointed up, when you win four games in a row the way we have," Smith said. "We talked early about getting in position in October and making that run in November. That's exactly what the guys are doing."
The four-game win streak came at a critical time, on the heels of back-to-back home losses, said linebacker Brian Urlacher.
"We're where we want to be," Urlacher said. "We kind of stumbled there in the middle of the season with those two home games we lost. But we're leading our division. That's where we've wanted to be all season long."
The Bears' record has been questioned by doubters because of the relative ease of their early schedule, but Sunday's victory over the NFC East leaders made a statement.
"They were considered the best team," safety Chris Harris said. "Them and Atlanta were two of the best teams in the NFC. Nobody really talked about us. We don't care. We like it that way. We were picked to lose this game at home, which is kind of a slap in the face. But we have a great team, a resilient team."
TRENDING: The Bears have rushed for 130 or more yards in three straight games after doing it just once in the first eight games. It helps that offensive coordinator Mike Martz has done more than pay lip service to the ground game. During the four-game win streak, the Bears have run the ball 31, 38, 40 and 38 times. During back-to-back home losses that preceded the win streak, the Bears ran a total of 30 times.
BY THE NUMBERS: During the four-game win streak, Cutler has thrown nine touchdown passes and just three interceptions. In the three games before that, he had one touchdown pass and five interceptions.
The immediate task at hand is the Chicago Bears, who play the Lions at Ford Field Sunday.
But with their 10th straight losing season already secure, there will be a dual focus to the remaining five games: Try winning a couple of games, for sure, but also start looking ahead to 2011.
It seems doubtful that quarterback Matthew Stafford (shoulder) will return this season. Even if he could rush his rehab and be ready to play in the final two games, what would be the point? It would seem a very high risk for little reward.
Also, it might be in the best interest to shut rookie running back Jahvid Best (toes) down; if not for the rest of the season, then at least a week or two. He's been trying to play on two bad feet since the third week of the season and it's only gotten worse.
The Lions had their best rushing game of the season with Maurice Morris and second-year back Aaron Brown carrying the load. With an eye on next season, it would behoove the Lions to give Brown some extended work. He has big-play speed but he has yet been given enough reps to find any confidence or rhythm.
Truth is, though, there isn't likely to be much roster upheaval. The entire offensive line is signed at least through next season. The starting skill position players - Stafford, Shaun Hill, Best, receivers Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson, tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler - are also signed at least through next season.
On defense, the defensive line will return intact. In the secondary, only cornerback Chris Houston has yet to be signed (he would be a restricted free agent). Cornerback Alphonso Smith, free safety Louis Delmas and rookie strong safety Amari Spievey will be back. Safety C.C. Brown will be a free agent.
That leaves the linebackers as the next major area of reconstruction. Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy is considered one of the foundation pieces of the defense and he's signed through next season. Veteran outside linebacker Julian Peterson has one year left at $8 million, which almost guarantees that he will be released after the season.
Outside linebackers Ashlee Palmer, Landon Johnson and Bobby Carpenter aren't expected to return.
TRENDING: In the last two losses, against Dallas and New England, the Lions were outscored 63-16 in the second half. It's the mark of a team that hasn't figured out how, or isn't quite good enough, to win. In their nine losses, they have had third-quarter leads in five games.
LINEUP WATCH: The Lions continue to get almost nothing out of their third receiver. Thus, there is a chance that another receiver, perhaps former Eagle Kevin Curtis, will be signed this week. Veteran Bryant Johnson, who has 10 catches in 10 games, is very much on the bubble. Derrick Williams, a third round pick in 2009, got some work against the Patriots and had a touchdown pass bounce off his hands.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Instead of running to daylight, the ground-challenged Packers have their work cut out in the stretch run of the season to get back to the playoffs.
Green Bay fell to 7-4 and again dropped out of first place in the NFC North after it lost 20-17 at the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. All four defeats have been by three points and decided in the final seconds of regulation or overtime.
"We've got to find a way to win the tight ones," center Scott Wells said. "We have to execute better down the stretch in games like this ... (and) every little detail matters. So, you have to chase perfection."
The Packers nearly overcame another imperfect showing in running the football by getting another masterful performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He threw for 344 yards and completed a 16-play, 90-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson on fourth down to tie the score with 56 seconds to play.
The NFC-leading Falcons (9-2), however, prevailed 47 seconds later on a 47-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
"I told (Rodgers) in the shower, 'We did what we were called upon to do,'" said receiver Greg Jennings, alluding to Green Bay's effective passing attack. "But, it's a team game. When you have a letdown in other categories, you put pressure on the defense to pick us up."
That Rodgers was the Packers' top rusher Sunday with a career-high 12 attempts for 51 yards (a season high) wasn't what they needed to counter Atlanta's balanced and time-consuming offense.
Featured back Brandon Jackson had only 26 yards in 10 carries as Green Bay mustered 77 rushing yards.
"That tells you right there it's not very good," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin lamented.
The Packers, who will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, have gained 100 rushing yards only once in the last six games. It's a dubious stretch in which Jackson has been held to less than 60 yards in every outing.
Jackson has only one 100-yard game to his credit since taking over for Ryan Grant, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the season opener.
Green Bay compensated for the latest run struggles Sunday with a heavy reliance on spread formations with four or five receivers. Eighteen plays started in empty-backfield sets.
"Obviously, I'd like to be able to run the ball, but if they're going to give us the pass, we're going to take it," right guard Josh Sitton said.
The Packers were stymied a handful of times trying to run the football in short-yardage situations against Atlanta, including a costly goal-line fumble by Rodgers on a third-down sneak in the first half.
"We just need to convert those, whether it's running it or throwing it," Rodgers said. "Third-and-1, you expect to convert those."
LINEUP WATCH: Tight end Donald Lee's days in Green Bay could be numbered. Lee, an eighth-year pro who has played 90 games with 51 starts as a Packer since 2005, was a healthy scratch from the active list Sunday. Lee had made four starts after Jermichael Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, but the veteran has only eight catches for 68 yards and one touchdown this season. Rookie Andrew Quarless made the start Sunday, and Green Bay also activated Tom Crabtree and Spencer Havner at tight end.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 — Consecutive wins by the Packers against the 49ers. The streak, which includes one postseason meeting, started in 1999.