Even though it's just the seventh game of the season, Sunday's NFC North showdown at Detroit qualifies as the biggest game of Lovie Smith's coaching career with the Bears.
And even though the Bears and Lions are both just 3-3, the game is still for first place in the division.
Smith declared Sunday's 10-6 victory over the Ravens as his biggest win since taking over as the Bears coach last season, and Sunday's game against the Lions represents his first opportunity to climb above the .500 mark. The Bears haven't been above .500 this late in the year since the 2001 playoff season.
"It's been a couple years," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "A few years, actually. It'll be fun."
Since the Bears pounded the Lions 38-6 in Week Two, another victory Sunday would give them a solid grip on first place, considering the division tiebreakers and that the Vikings are 2-4 and the Packers 1-5.
"This past one was the biggest win we've had, and the biggest game," Smith said. "We're going to say the same thing about the importance of this game and how big it is for us. This is the position we want to be in, going up to Detroit in first place. Each week you win, it gets bigger and bigger."
After the Bears' 1-5 start last season, there weren't any big games. But with back-to-back victories and a defense that is showing signs of dominance, expectations for this season are on the rise.
"It's been a long time," tight end Desmond Clark said. "If we go get one next week, then it's really going to be on."
This early in the season, Smith isn't as concerned with first place as he is with stacking wins, though.
"Where we are in our division will take care of itself," Smith said. "Right now it doesn't really matter what place we're in. We're playing a division opponent. This is a team that swept us last year. We had two tough losses against them (20-16 and 19-13), so it's a big game for us with a lot at stake."
Smith won't look past the Lions, but if he did, he'd see a perfect opportunity for piling up some Ws. After the Lions, the Bears play the 2-5 Saints in Baton Rouge, La., and the 1-5 49ers at home.
Urlacher won't peer too far into the future either, especially since he still doesn't know if he should feel like he's on a first-place team because of the Bears' modest record.
"Ask me after next week, if we go out there and win," he said. "It's still so early in the season, so much can happen, especially in our (division). But if we keep playing well, we'll have a chance to win a lot of games."
It's still October, with plenty of football remaining to be played, and neither of the teams involved is better than .500, but for the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, the game Sunday is as big as it gets. So far, anyway.
Barring a tie game, the winner will lead the NFC North with a 4-3 record and the loser will fall a game off the pace at 3-4.
Not exactly game-of-the-century stuff but it's a game the Lions need badly - for one obvious reason and for one reason more personal.
Obviously, the Lions don't want to slip out of first place in a division that could go to the team capable of putting up an 8-8 record.
More personal, the Lions took a 38-6 drubbing at the hands of the Bears in the second game of the season, Sept. 18, at Soldier Field. They need to even the score and - in the process - erase the Bears' tie-breaker edge in the head-to-head category.
"Obviously, it's a big game because it's a division game against the Bears," quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "They handed it to us, pretty much embarrassed us last time in Chicago. Both teams have the same record; obviously they're up on us because of the win against us."
The Lions haven't been in any kind of a showdown game since losing the final game of the 2000 season to the Bears. They finished 9-7 but missed the playoffs because of the loss, and owner William Clay Ford hired current team president Matt Millen to rebuild the team from the ground up.
It's still too early in the season to consider this a major showdown but that doesn't make the game any less significant, especially to the Lions, who have gone through a rash of injuries and could be playing without as many as six starters - receivers Charles Rogers (suspension), Roy Williams (quadriceps) and Kevin Johnson (Achilles' tendon), kick returner Eddie Drummond, and Pro Bowl defensive players Shaun Rogers and Dre' Bly.
If it's up to Garcia, the Lions won't be thinking about the shorthanded angle. Their minds will be on taking the next step back toward NFL respectability and contention.
"This is the next step in the process of getting to that point," Garcia said, referring to the goal of contending for a division title and the playoffs. "And if you can't continue to take steps forward, you're always going to find yourself at the bottom.
"This is an opportunity for us to take another step forward. If we can go out there and play good football, continue to grow as an offense and continue to just play with a lot of intensity, a lot of guts on the defensive side of the football, it gives us opportunities to be in football games and win football games.
"That's where we want to be every Sunday. We want to find ourselves taking steps forward, getting better as a team - especially on the offensive side of the ball - we need to progress that process. We need to take huge steps, huge strides."
If they don't take some kind of a step forward Sunday, it might not make much difference where they are in late December.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Brett Favre has reached his limit.
No, the 36-year-old hasn't decided to retire in midstream of this rocky season for the team. But coach Mike Sherman stressed Wednesday that the unfathomable 1-5 record can't be in any way pinned on the franchise quarterback, who's off to the one of the best starts of his 14-year starting tenure.
"There's only so much he can do at quarterback, and I think he's doing plenty right now," Sherman said. "He's playing well enough for us to win. We have to find other ways to improve, other than the quarterback necessarily. I think he's playing very well. He's gone a couple of games where he hasn't turned the ball over. He's making great decisions. He's competing. He's been a great leader. He's been supportive of his teammates. Couldn't ask for anything more out of him."
Only if Favre had the superhuman capabilities - and an exemption from the rules book - to hand the ball off or throw passes to himself, starting with Sunday's game at AFC North leader Cincinnati. He's about the only dynamic playmaker left for a once-formidable offense rocked mercilessly by early-season injuries.
Before the season started, Favre wasn't up on the names and backgrounds of his considerably younger teammates. This week, he's even more clueless, having been presented another batch of reinforcements, including a receiver who goes by the name of Taco.
"I don't know what some of our guys will give us, and I have to introduce myself to some of them," acknowledged Favre, adding honestly, "I don't know what we're capable of doing or what people should expect."
Both the running back and wide receiver positions are in tatters.
Pro Bowl halfback Ahman Green followed top backup Najeh Davenport to injured reserve. Green suffered a torn quadriceps tendon in the last-second loss at Minnesota on Sunday and underwent surgery Tuesday.
Davenport has already begun his rehabilitation from surgery on the broken ankle he sustained in the previous game Oct. 9.
Now, the Packers' 30th-rated rushing offense must make do with third-down specialist Tony Fisher as the starter and unproven ReShard Lee and Walt Williams as the backups.
The makeshift ensemble at receiver is only slightly more encouraging, what with game-breaker Donald Driver still healthy. Yet the season-ending losses of top pass catcher Javon Walker and rookie Terrence Murphy, coupled with Robert Ferguson's short-term absence because of a knee injury he suffered Sunday, threaten to end Favre's unshakable play of late.
In what amounts to the last 2 1/2 games, Favre has completed 62 of 87 passes for 715 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception. He enters Sunday's game as the league leader with 14 touchdown throws, one more than the Bengals' Carson Palmer.
Moreover, Favre hasn't been sacked in his last 111 pass plays.
Having surrounded Favre with Antonio Chatman as the new starter to replace Ferguson and newly signed Andrae Thurman and Taco Wallace as the backup receivers, Sherman will neither ask nor expect Favre to do any more than what's he done thus far.
"It's up to the new guys," Favre said pointedly. "A lot of these guys are going to have to learn on the run and are going to have to learn in game situations, crunch time. That's a very difficult place to learn, but it's the hand that we've been dealt."
Sherman conceded the face of the offense has been altered significantly in the wake of the rash of injuries to key players. As such, he alluded that a greater emphasis has been placed on getting the tight ends involved more to ease the burden on an otherwise suspect, young group of receivers. Bubba Franks, David Martin and Donald Lee each has good hands, reasonable speed and the ability to stretch the field.
"We've tilted a little bit that way, more so than we have in the past," Sherman said. "(But) we still have to be able to put three wide receivers out there and be able to do things on third down, as well as first down."
After all, their quarterback can't get it all done by himself.