Riding the crest of a five-game winning streak, Chicago's longest in a single season since the first five games of 2006, the Bears can point to several positive signs as the playoff race heats up.
Despite a poor first half Sunday, the defense is still among the league's best in most categories, and the offense has made strides. But the Bears also are aware of one problem that has plagued them all season: sacks.
Jay Cutler remains the most sacked quarterback in the NFL after being taken down four times for the second straight week. Cutler has been sacked a whopping 41 times, even though he missed 1 1/2 games with a concussion, which was the result of a sack. As a team, the Bears have been sacked a league-worst 45 times, five more than the next-worst team, the Cardinals, and three times as many as Sunday's opponent, the Patriots.
Ironically, Cutler and the offense have begun to flourish. Cutler's 92.8 passer rating, if maintained, would be the highest of his five-year career. Despite hitting the canvas eight times in two games, during that stretch he has thrown five touchdown passes, no interceptions and completed 35 of 47 passes (74.5 percent) for 481 yards and passer ratings of 146.2 and 117.0.
It's the first time in his two years with the Bears that Cutler has been interception-free in back-to-back games and only the second time in his career.
"Of course you don't want your quarterback to get hit at all," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But they have scholarship players on the other side, too. You do have to live with that a little."
Cutler has done a remarkable job, especially during the win streak, of minimizing the damage that could have resulted from a sometimes-porous offensive line. As many times as he's been sacked recently, Cutler has bolted from the pocket to pick up significant yardage.
During the five-game winning streak, Cutler has been dropped 14 times for 106 yards in losses. But he has run 15 times for 132 yards, an 8.8-yard average. That doesn't include 11 kneel-downs for minus-12 yards at the end of halves that are included in his rushing statistics.
"It's good to have a guy like Jay who still can be productive (as a runner)," Smith said. "(If) you look at most of the games, quarterbacks are running a lot of the time trying to get away from the pressure. (But) we'll continue to try to take care of him."
The Bears did a poor job Sunday of protecting Cutler from Lions left defensive end Cliff Avril, who had three of Detroit's four sacks, mostly at the expense of rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb.
"There are always a lot of factors involved with it, but of course we don't want to give up that many," Smith said. "We'll continue to get better on the offensive line. You have to give Cliff his due also. He had a heck of a game. Those three sacks were big."
Just before the current winning streak started, the Bears suffered through a four-game slump, which included three losses, during which Chicago allowed 23 sacks. In the next two games, the Bears permitted a total of just three sacks, and it appeared progress had been made.
But after 11 sacks in the past three games, there are still concerns. The final two regular-season games are against the Jets and Packers, who are 13th and fifth, respectively, in sack percentage. And in two weeks, there's the rematch with the Vikings and defensive end Jared Allen, who has 7 1/2 sacks in his last five games against the Bears.
Pretty soon there will be an entire glossary of new phrases in the NFL rulebook spurred by Bears-Lions games.
In Week 1, we were treated to, "complete the process," — as in, wide receiver Calvin Johnson did not complete the process of a catch on what would have been a game-winning touchdown against the Bears.
Last Week, in another Lions' loss to the Bears, we get "an unnecessary non-football act," — as in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was called for unnecessary roughness for a non-football hit on quarterback Jay Cutler.
The explanation, by referee Ed Hochuli after the game Sunday, sent coach Jim Schwartz to the rulebook.
"I don't really know what the definition of that is," he said. "I've not seen a definition of that. But it was more of a push in the middle of the back."
Defensive end Cliff Avril put it like this: "It looked like a legal hit to me. I didn't know you could hit guys too hard in football."
Schwartz and the players were quick to point out that the call, which wound up costing the Lions seven yards and helped set up the Bears' game-winning score with 8:39 left in the game, wasn't the reason for the loss. It had nothing to do with the Lions' inability to move the ball in the second half (49 total yards) or the fact that they couldn't get one more defensive stop in the final 5:17.
But the call itself was, to Schwartz, egregious.
"It has been reported that the flag was thrown because Cutler was hit in the back of the head when he was in the process of going down," said Schwartz referencing Hochuli's statement to a pool reporter. "I think it's fairly obvious that neither of those things ended up being correct."
Cutler had already scrambled for seven yards, eluding two other defenders, before he cut back right into Suh's path. To the naked eye, it looked like Suh hit him in the back with a forearm shiver. Replays though showed that he merely extended his arms and pushed Cutler, who was still trying to maneuver toward the goal line.
"It was funny to see that called and then the reasoning behind it was even more funny," Avril he said.
When asked what was said to Suh, he said, "You don't tell him anything. The man's playing hard and he's a rookie and he's out there making big plays. I don't think that was a bad play. That's what we're here to do, to hit guys. You don't tell him anything but keep hitting them harder."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Brandon Jackson hasn't lost his hold on the would-be role of featured back in the offense.
Yet, an impressive pro debut by James Starks on Sunday has given head coach/play-caller Mike McCarthy some good food for thought on how the responsibilities will be divvied up in the backfield.
"We took enough time to get him ready to play in games, and he stepped up and responded," McCarthy said of Starks on Monday. "It's just like anything else in this world, when you have the opportunity, you have to do something with it, and he got off to a good start."
Although Jackson was the starter in the 34-16 rout of the San Francisco 49ers, Starks shouldered most of the load in a running capacity. The sixth-round draft pick out of Buffalo had 18 carries for 73 yards in his first action in nearly two years.
It was the best performance by a Packers rookie running back in his first game in 62 years.
"That's a good running back. He showed what he can do," veteran receiver Donald Driver said. "I just want to see more of it, and he'll get his opportunity once again next week."
Indeed, McCarthy is looking at going with a rotation of three halfbacks — Jackson, Starks and rookie Dimitri Nance, who didn't play Sunday after he suffered a concussion in the previous game.
"Brandon is still our main guy. He's done it all year," McCarthy said. "(But) I don't think it's in our best interests with as much football as we have in front of us to sit there and run Brandon Jackson 25 times a game."
Jackson had a season-low four carries for 13 yards Sunday. After having 18 rushes in the season-opening win at the Philadelphia Eagles, the same game in which top back Ryan Grant suffered a season-ending ankle injury, Jackson has averaged only 10.7 carries in 11 games.
What's more, Jackson has gained all of 67 yards in 28 carries in the last three games and hasn't rushed for more than 58 yards in any of the last seven outings. Jackson instead has been an asset as a reliable pass catcher on screens and checkdowns.
Starks' 18 carries Sunday matched Jackson's total in Week 1 for the team's individual high this season. McCarthy had planned to give Starks just eight to 10 carries Sunday, easing him in after he missed his final college season in 2009 because of shoulder surgery and then most of this season because of a hamstring injury.
"It's kind of the way it worked out," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "We had repped some plays for (Starks) and some for Brandon, and it's kind of the way the chips fell."