Despite a 1-2 record, the Bears find themselves nestled comfortably into the driver's seat heading toward Cleveland Sunday.
If they aren't leading the embarrassing NFC North by midseason, it's only because they've driven off the road in an accident they caused. The Bears' next six opponents have a combined total of seven wins, and none of the six has a winning record.
"If we continue to win from here on out, we'll be in the playoffs," safety Mike Brown said. "That's the way we have to take things."
The Browns are also 1-2, but they're in last place in the AFC North, where the 4-0 Bengals have more victories than all four NFC North teams combined. While the NFC North - which the Bears lead - has combined for a total of three victories, the NFC East has 11, and every other division has at least six.
"I think the time is now," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We can't wait for what's going to happen later on. We see an opportunity that we've (been) given."
After the Browns, the Bears are at home against the 1-3 Vikings and the 1-2 Ravens. Then they visit the 1-2 Lions and the 2-2 Saints in Baton Rouge, followed by a home game against the 1-3 49ers.
"We feel like our team is in great shape to make a big push right now," Smith said. "Two weeks ago we really played well (in a 38-6 victory over the Lions). We were knocked back a little bit the last time we went out (24-7 loss to the Bengals) but we (have) a chance to be the team that I know we can be on a consistent basis."
Health-wise the Bears are close to 100 percent. Tight end Desmond Clark is questionable this week with a strained neck, and backup linebacker Joe Odom (sprained ankle/foot) isn't expected back, but everyone else is healthy.
"We're ready to get back out there and prove ourselves again against a good team on the road," said defensive tackle Ian Scott, who leads the Bears' linemen with 24 tackles. "It's a chance to distance ourselves a little bit from the other teams in our division. If we get to 2-2, we'll be in a good place, and then we've got another division game the week after that, so this week is important for us."
The Browns are also coming off an open weekend and may be better than their record indicates. They defeated the Packers in Green Bay, while their losses have been to the Bengals and Colts, both of whom are 4-0. The same might be said of the Bears. Their losses are to the Bengals and the 3-0 Redskins.
"It's a big one," Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher said. "On the road, it'll really say a lot about our team the way we come out of that."
It's not inconceivable that the Bears could lose Sunday and remain in first place, since the Lions host the Ravens, the Packers are at home against the Saints and the Vikings are idle. But even in the NFC North, someone is bound to catch fire at some point, even if that means playing .500 ball.
Starter Doug Brien, who has missed 3 of his 4 field-goal attempts this season, didn't practice because of a back injury that has him listed as probable. But coaches stressed that Tyler is at Halas Hall as insurance, not as a replacement.
"We didn't bring Tyler in because (Brien) missed field goals," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said, "we brought him in because of (Brien's) back being tight."
The Bears originally signed Jones as an undrafted free agent on April 29, out of Boise State, but he was waived on June 28 and was claimed by the Browns two days later.
"He wasn't as accurate as we'd like for him to be at the time, but we really like the potential for us," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Of the three kickers we had in (Nick Novak was the third), he had the strongest leg."
Jones had a game-winning 41-yard field goal in the preseason opener against the Giants, but Cleveland waived the 6-foot-1, 198-pounder Aug. 30. Since his release from the Browns, Jones has been working out at Boise State and has had tryouts with the Redskins, Eagles and Lions.
"Now I have to go out and show (the Bears) how much I've improved and what I can do and let them make the decision from there," said Jones, who early in Wednesday's practice clanked an extra point and a short FG attempt off the right upright.
There is no timetable or deadline for Brien's return. If his health remains iffy by game day, he and Jones could both be active.
"There's a chance, but right now that isn't the plan," Smith said. "The plan right now is for Doug to kick for us."
But it still doesn't bother Orton, who handles negative and positive plays with the same even-keeled demeanor. On Wednesday he was asked who helps him with advice during tough times.
"I don't need a whole lot of advice on that," Orton said. "I've got it handled pretty well. I've played bad games in the past and come back and played great ones. So that's what I'm expecting to do this week."
Orton probably wouldn't give his most recent performance a thought if it weren't constantly asked about it. His message is the same as it's been since his first preseason interception.
"There are a lot of football games," he said, "and if you're going to worry about one bad one, you're not going to be playing for long. There are going to be bad games, and that's just how it goes. The best players who've ever played the game, they've all had bad games. So I'm not going to sit there and worry about and sulk about one loss."
The Bears like Gage's size and blocking ability, but they are eager to get more playing time for second-year speedster Bernard Berrian to stretch the field. Slot receiver Bobby Wade had four catches for 47 yards in the last game and is solid as an underneath receiver.
Wide receiver Charles Rogers was not on the practice field when the Lions began preparations Wednesday for their game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, leaving the already struggling Lions with yet another problem.
Rogers, the Lions' starting split end and their first pick in the 2003 draft (No. 2 overall), has been suspended for four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse program and apparently has decided not to appeal the suspension.
Although the NFL treats the substance abuse violations with total confidentiality, the four-game suspension means that it was the third violation for Rogers under the league-wide testing program.
And while Rogers has not been performing at the level worthy of his draft position, his departure creates a problem for the Lions and puts another blemish on his NFL record.
He missed the final 11 games of his rookie season with a broken collarbone and he lasted only three plays in the season opener last year, creating questions regarding his ability to withstand the physical punishment of the NFL.
With the substance abuse suspension, the character question has been raised. He already has shown indications of underachieving and he might not have the temperament or mental discipline to last.
Neither Rogers nor agent Kevin Poston would comment on the suspension, but the Lions issued a statement attributed to Rogers in the afternoon Wednesday.
"Most importantly, I want to apologize to my family, my teammates, my coaches, to this organization, the fans and my friends," Rogers said in the statement. "I will make no excuses for what I did and I accept full responsibility for my actions. I let down a lot of people, mainly myself.
"I have no choice but to look forward, learn from my mistakes and do everything in my power not to repeat those mistakes. I am still part of this team and this community because Michigan is my home. I am still young and have a lot of football ahead of me.
"I will guarantee you this: when I return, I fully expect to be the player on the field and the person off the field that everyone expected me to be when I was drafted."
In the first three games of the season, Rogers' production - and some feel even his effort - has been subpar. He caught just five passes for 77 yards, was not precise in his routes and even cut off routes on plays in which he was not the primary receiver.
Coach Steve Mariucci indicated either rookie Mike Williams or veteran Kevin Johnson will start in Rogers' place, and both will get extensive playing time.
Fellow receiver Roy Williams, in particular, was less than sympathetic after learning the often-injured Rogers would miss part of the season for an avoidable reason this year.
Williams, a second-year player, was asked: "Do you feel for him a little bit?"
Williams paused momentarily, then replied: "That's a good friend but I don't feel for him. You know the consequences if you choose to do that, but I don't feel for him. You live and you learn."
Williams declined to elaborate on his feelings, answering succeeding questions with the same line: "You live and you learn."
Williams indicated he will support Rogers as a teammate, however.
"I saw him this morning," he said. "I just told him, ‘Keep your head up, man, and everything will be cool.' After this four-game absence, I believe he'll come back like a warrior."
Several Lions players noted that Rogers apologized to the team during meetings Wednesday morning.
"No one's going to judge him," said rookie wide receiver Mike Williams. "He made a mistake, he did what he did and he's going to suffer the consequences as a man. That's what he said he's going to do."
With Rogers out for the Baltimore, Carolina, Cleveland and Chicago games, it is likely either rookie Mike Williams or veteran Kevin Johnson will start in the split end position usually occupied by Rogers.
"It affects our group, it affects our team," Mike Williams said. "We need everybody to win and it's unfortunate.
"I talked to Chuck. You know, he addressed our team this morning. ... and guys are going to step up. I don't know if I'm starting, I don't know if (Kevin Johnson) is starting. We don't know what's going on. We're going to try to move forward, treat it kind of like (Rogers) is injured."
Johnson, a seven-year veteran, played for the Ravens last year, catching 35 passes for 373 yards and a touchdown, and watching the Baltimore defense at work.
"They're just relentless," Johnson said. "They keep coming and they're going to fight you for 60 minutes. You've got to be able to make those three or four or five plays that make the difference in a game.
"They feel they can make them, but you've got to believe you can make them."
For the third time in as many games they will be matched against one of the NFL's top five defensive teams - the Chicago Bears (4th overall) on Sept. 18, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 1 overall) last week and Baltimore (No. 2 overall) coming in Sunday.
Their only break was the bye week and, with the No. 29 overall offense, they might be wishing for another bye this weekend instead of worrying about Ravens MLB Ray Lewis and the rest of his crew.
As much as QB Joey Harrington has struggled with the passing game, averaging only 164 yards per game, the rushing game has been just as dismal. Or worse. The Lions are averaging only 74 yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry.
Their run blocking has been disappointing and RB Kevin Jones has not made anything happen on his own, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry with a long gain of 8 yards in 45 rushing attempts.
The Lions must somehow muster a running game to keep the pressure off Harrington and his receivers, but it won't be easy against the Ravens, who are giving up an average of only 70.3 yards per game on the ground.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Packers coach Mike Sherman isn't getting too worked up about the hallowed 87-year-old franchise's first 0-4 start since 1988.
At least he's not taking out his frustration on the family dog, which already was relegated to Sherman's proverbial doghouse at home.
"I kick the dog anyway because I don't like it. Never did," he said humorously Wednesday. "So, kicking the dog is not a problem. Don't need extra motivation for it. Kick myself, maybe.
"It's been difficult. It's challenging. I look at it in this business and the reason I'm in this business is because of the challenges you're presented with. They motivate me. This is certainly plenty challenging right now. And, hopefully, we can rise to the occasion, accept the challenge and do some things that people certainly don't expect us to do at this present point."
Indeed, very few, including their passionate fans, are expecting the Packers to dig themselves out of the gulf they've created. As one of just two winless teams in the league, Green Bay, which hosts New Orleans on Sunday, is facing tremendous odds to salvage a respectable season, to say nothing of contending for a playoff spot.
Since 1990, when the NFL expanded the postseason field from 10 to 12 teams, only one of 51 teams saddled with an 0-4 start rallied to get into the playoffs - the 1992 San Diego Chargers, who won 11 of their final 12 regular-season games.
As much as a precedent has been set, there's little reason to think a relatively inexperienced, mistake-prone, injury-riddled Packers team can flip the switch just like that. Their morsel of hope is they play in a division filled from top to bottom with downtrodden teams, with only two games separating all of them.
As longtime quarterback Brett Favre said matter-of-factly, however, "Our main concern is to win (but) we can't do anything unless we win."
If their otherwise stellar history is an accurate gauge, the Packers are destined to finish 4-12. The other three teams (1975, ‘86 and ‘88) that began in dubious 0-4 fashion all wound up with four victories.
What separates this year's team from those bumbling predecessors, merely from a competitiveness standpoint, is it has lost the last three games by two, one and three points. The Packers' incredible, nearly successful comeback from a 19-point deficit in the fourth quarter Monday night, doing so without five starters on offense, kept the players and the coaches from wallowing too much in despair.
Those who were with the team last year are latching on to the improbable turnaround from a 1-4 start to a 10-6 record, a third straight NFC North title and a fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs as inspiration that all is not lost. Never mind what the one-sided record indicates after four weeks.
Expectations of turning things around on a short week against the Saints have been tempered, however. The offense was decimated Monday night with center Mike Flanagan (hernia), left tackle Chad Clifton (ankle), halfback Ahman Green (knee, thigh) and No. 4 receiver Terrence Murphy (neck) all going out by the midpoint of the third quarter. The defense took a big hit as well, with linebacker Na'il Diggs suffering his second major knee injury since the opening week of the preseason.
Flanagan, Clifton, Green and Diggs were among eight starters who didn't practice Wednesday.
"I don't know who's going to play this week (but) my job doesn't change," Favre said. "There's no other way to approach it than to play it like it's any other week with everybody in there."
Fortunately for the Packers, their bye on the schedule comes after Sunday's game. Yet, if they find another way to lose, it's sure to be another restless week in the city that doesn't take failing by its football team well.
Murphy returned to Green Bay on Wednesday after being hospitalized in Charlotte, N.C. He temporarily lost feeling in his extremities from Thomas Davis' helmet-to-helmet hit. Head coach Mike Sherman on Thursday said Murphy still had some tingling in a shoulder.
The team decided to put Murphy, a second-round draft pick this year, on the season-ending list because he faces a recovery time of at least eight to 10 weeks. He won't need surgery.
When asked if the injury is career-threatening, Sherman responded, "We're not even considering that option at this present time. We're hoping that he'll make a full recovery and be back on the field (for next year's post-draft) minicamp and fully expect that."
The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Lee was with Buffalo most of the preseason and then played in the final exhibition game with Minnesota before being cut a second time.
Lee had a 69-yard kickoff return for the Bills in a preseason game against the Packers.
Sherman said Lee will be used on kickoff returns Sunday against New Orleans, filling the void created by Murphy's injury.
Lee ranked seventh in the NFC last year with a kickoff-return average of 23.5 yards while playing for Dallas, which originally signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2003.
Mark Tauscher, who has been a fixture at right tackle since Week 3 of his rookie season in 2000, lined up at left tackle in practice Thursday. Tauscher presumably will get the start there in place of an injured Chad Clifton and be entrusted with protecting Brett Favre's back side when the winless Packers host New Orleans on Sunday.
Clifton didn't practice for the second straight day because of a sprained left ankle, sustained in Monday's 32-29 loss at Carolina. He remains listed on the injury report as questionable for the upcoming game.
Tauscher also is less than 100 percent physically, having returned to practice Thursday after aggravating a sprained left arch in the game Monday.
Coach Mike Sherman indicated after practice Thursday that he has no reservations making such a drastic move with Tauscher, in the event Clifton can't play Sunday.
"Tauscher can do anything," Sherman said. "Tauscher can play tight end. He can play left tackle. He can play right tackle. He probably could play quarterback if we asked him. He's very adaptable."
The switch came a day after left guard Adrian Klemm took the reps at left tackle, where he also moved for the final three-plus quarters Monday after Clifton was injured. Klemm acknowledged he's more comfortable staying at the position he's held down since signing as a free agent with the Packers in March to be the successor to the departed Mike Wahle.
The only other option the Packers had at left tackle is rookie Junius Coston, but he's considered a project.
As it stands, Klemm and rookie right guard Will Whitticker will be the only starting linemen Sunday at unchanged spots.
Center Mike Flanagan was lost indefinitely after undergoing surgery Wednesday to repair a hernia. Flanagan aggravated the injury early in Monday's game.
Scott Wells, who filled in for the duration of the contest, will start Sunday.
With Tauscher moving to left tackle, Kevin Barry is in line to make his fourth career start at right tackle - and first since his rookie season in 2002. The mammoth Barry has been the centerpiece of the frequently employed U-71 package as an extra tight end. With Barry possibly starting, it's not clear what place the run-oriented formation would have in Sunday's game.
The odd man out on the makeshift line is seventh-year veteran Grey Ruegamer, who stepped in at left guard Monday when Klemm was shifted outside and worked as the starter in practice Wednesday.
Touching on how little he's being used even during this period of crisis, Ruegamer leveled some criticism at first-year general manager Ted Thompson before practice Thursday.
"Let's be honest, the general manager's not trying to keep the older guys around. He wants his young guys," Ruegamer said. "Win or lose, he's going to get the young guys in there because that's who he thinks the franchise is going to be with down the road.
"So the older guys - me, (fullback) Will (Henderson), Brett - we're not in the plans of the future. So he's not really that concerned about how much playing time we get or whatever. Or if we win or lose. I just think that's the honest answer."
The Packers were down to only three receivers for the second half Monday after rookie Terrence Murphy suffered neck trauma and possibly a bruised spinal cord on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Thomas Davis on a kickoff return. Murphy temporarily lost feeling in his extremities as he lay on the field for 10 minutes before being taken off on a stretcher and transported to a Charlotte, N.C., hospital, where he was kept for observation until Wednesday.
Sherman said Wednesday there's no telling how soon Murphy will be able to play again. There's a chance Murphy won't return this season, and it's unclear whether he suffered career-threatening injuries.
His loss comes three weeks after Pro Bowl receiver Javon Walker sustained a season-ending tear of the ACL in his right knee. Walker is scheduled to undergo surgery Friday.
While the Packers have shown interest in former Cleveland and New England receiver Andre' Davis, they're leery of an as-yet-healed stress fracture he sustained in a preseason game against them Aug. 26. The Patriots later released Davis before the start of the regular season.
In the interim, the Packers promoted Jamal Jones from the practice squad to the 53-man roster Wednesday. The first-year player caught 31 passes for an average of 12.5 yards playing for Frankfurt in NFL Europe this year. Jones also has kickoff-return capabilities and could be utilized to fill a big void with Murphy sidelined Jones was signed as an undrafted free agent by St. Louis last year, was cut at the end of the preseason and then landed on the Packers' practice squad the last month of the season.
With the bye week coming up after Sunday's game, Green Bay apparently is content to get by with Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and Antonio Chatman as their sure things at receiver. Sherman said tight end David Martin, a converted receiver, could be deployed as a wideout in a pinch if another receiver were to go out Sunday.