The Bears don't believe their defensive letdown against the Steelers was anything more than an aberration, which is fortunate considering the Falcons, Sunday night's opponents at Soldier Field, have scored 24 points or more in four of their last five games and nine of their last 11.
The 21 points the Steelers scored last week were the most the Bears have permitted in 10 weeks, and the Steelers' 363 yards and 190 rushing yards were the most the Bears have allowed all season. Sloppy tackling was the culprit cited by most of the Bears, along with a few missed assignments.
"I don't think it's unusual," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Any good football team will go through a game like we went through. I can recall a few - one vividly was when I was in Tampa, and we ended up playing in the (1999 NFC) championship game that year - we went to Oakland and we were beaten 45-0 (in Week 15). They rushed for over 200 yards. Things like that happen from time to time. You have to come back off of a bad game and that's what we'll do, we'll come back."
Players are convinced that the mistakes that allowed the Steelers to dominate the second-half time of possession 22:24-7:36 and convert an unacceptable 50 percent of their third-down opportunities are easily correctable. Coaches picked up a recurring problem in film review on Monday that was common throughout the defense.
"They say our most important grade is the make-the-play grade," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "That's when you're given a chance, or you're in the position, or the running back comes into the place where you're supposed to make the play. Did you make it? I think half of our starters had their worst make-the-play grade of the year.
"It's almost reassuring that it's not that all of a sudden we stink. It's just that a lot of guys played their worst game at the same time. I think there is something to take from it. As long as people make plays when we're in position to, then we're all right."
The Bears' run defense, which was No. 7 in the league before being gashed by the Steelers, will have an even more difficult challenge this week against the Falcons. Atlanta has the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack in yards and average gain per play. The speed and elusiveness of Warrick Dunn and quarterback Michael Vick combined with the power of T.J. Duckett, have produced an average of 178 rushing yards per game, almost double the 93 rushing yards per game the Bears had been allowing before the Steelers game.
"The good news is it's all fixable stuff," Hillenmeyer said. "We had lots of missed tackles and busted assignments. We didn't watch the film and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, we stink.' We watched the film, and it was a bunch of things that, if we do what we're supposed to do, and if we do what we're coached to do, it wouldn't have been a problem."
The bottom line is the Bears still have allowed just 148 points, 32 fewer points than the next-best defense in the league (the Colts with 180) and 61 fewer than the next-best NFC defense (the Bucs with 209). And they can still clinch a playoff berth with a victory against the Falcons combined with losses by the Giants and Cowboys, or a Cowboys tie and a Panthers loss.
"I think we just had a bad day," cornerback Nate Vasher said. "We know that we're a good football team, and we just have to pick up the pieces. We broke down the film to see what happened, but we're not going to dwell on that too long. We still have a bigger picture."
Now it's time to move on.
"We just weren't sound like we've been in the past games," tackle Tommie Harris said. "We paid for it. It's over. Sunday we get to come back and redeem ourselves."
"It's not realistic for a lot of (defenses), but it can be realistic for us," Briggs said. "If it was up to us, we want the situation to be on us every time.
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make plays and to give us the best chance to win each game."
Against the Steelers, the defense came up short, allowing a season-worst 363 total yards and 190 rushing yards.
"Games like this happen, and you know we faltered," Briggs said. "We didn't execute, and we've got to take it on our shoulders and get back. It's definitely a wakeup call."
"Its crucial; we've got to start converting," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "It's a combination of sometimes not executing well enough and sometimes not having a great situation. Last week we had 14 third downs and 11 of them were 6 or more yards. So we've got to do a better job on first- and second-down efficiency as well."
For the season, the Bears are No. 31 in third-down efficiency with a 28.1 percent conversion rate.
Wide receiver Bobby Wade was waived by the Bears Tuesday, two days after muffing a punt at the six-yard line in Sunday's 21-9 loss to the Steelers. It was Wade's 10th fumble, nine of them on punt returns, including four when he muffed the catch and five when he lost the ball after fielding the punt. Wade is sixth in the NFL with a 9.6-yard punt-return average, totaling 317 yards on 33 attempts. He led the NFL earlier in the season after scoring his first NFL touchdown on a 73-yard return vs. the Lions on Sept. 18 and a 49-yarder against the Vikings on Oct. 16.
After tying for the team lead among wide receivers last season with 42 catches, Wade had not contributed much in that area this year, with just 10 catches for 80 yards. The 5-foot-10, 186-pound Wade, who was a fifth-round pick out of Arizona in 2003, has 64 career receptions for 698 yards.
Wade's departure temporarily left the Bears with just four wide receivers, including veteran Eddie Berlin, who has been with the team for two games but was on the roster in the preseason.
BY THE NUMBERS: RB Thomas Jones has accounted for 36.5 percent of the Bears' total offense: 1,216 yards from scrimmage out of the total of 3,332. Only two players in the NFL, the Giants' Tiki Barber (37.6) and the Bills' Willis McGahee (37.1) have accounted for a greater percentage of their teams' offense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: Informed that third downs have been a sore spot for his squad this season, Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said: "No kidding."
The game with Cincinnati on Sunday might not hold a lot of promise for Lions fans, but they can at least look forward to the competition between cornerback Dre' Bly and Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson.
Both are Pro Bowl players. And it is the kind of competition that seems to bring out the best in both players.
Bly, who leads the Lions with five interceptions despite missing four games after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his right wrist, says he has the highest regard for Johnson.
"He has the total package," Bly said Wednesday. "He has great size, great speed. I think right now he's coming into his own. He's emerging as one of the top receivers in football.
"But the thing I love about him is his confidence, man. He's just very confident with his play and he's exciting to watch. But Chad knows it's going to be a battle, he knows what kind of player I am, that I play with a lot of confidence also and it's not going to be easy for him on Sunday."
Johnson, who leads the Bengals with 73 receptions for 1,161 yards and seven touchdowns, says he is equally impressed with Bly's ability.
"I love Dre', man, I love Dre'," Johnson said. "I was with him down at the Pro Bowl. We talked, I've studied him all week. He's what I call a very difficult opponent to beat because he plays the mind games at DB.
"Very, very smart. Very intelligent defensive backs. It's going to be one of my biggest challenges all year. There have only been three challenges for me - from my standpoint - as quality DBs and this is one of them."
Johnson said the other two cornerbacks he considered most challenging were Al Harris and Nate Clemons.
Although Bly and Johnson were on opposing teams at the Pro Bowl, Bly is obviously looking forward to the more meaningful competition Sunday at Ford Field.
"We had our battles at the Pro Bowl, kind of chit-chatting when we were out there, but we never really had a chance to go up against each other," Bly said. "I know I'm on his so-called list but that comes with football."
Although interim coach Dick Jauron is not saying how he will defend against Johnson and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Bly expects to cover Johnson on virtually every play he's on the field.
Lions interim coach Dick Jauron, a student of the NFL and its history, has connections and warm feelings for both teams.
As a younger player with the Lions, he played against the Packers at Lambeau Field. Later he worked as an assistant coach there and, as a head coach with the Chicago Bears, he won twice in five games there.
The only thing that spoiled his homecoming to Lambeau Field on Sunday night was the Packers' overtime field goal that cost the Lions a 16-13 loss.
He is hoping for better luck next Sunday when the Lions meet the Bengals, another team with which Jauron has a history.
"I have a strong feeling for them, a very good feeling for them," Jauron said. "I played there for four years and for me, when I was growing up, Paul Brown was a legend, Paul was a legend in this game.
"Then to meet him and to play for his team, for me personally, was a great thrill. I know the family a little bit and I'm happy for them, except for this weekend. I'll do everything we can to disappoint them this weekend."
"What I tell them is the only way out of it is work," Jauron said. "All we have is work. Come to work, go into that classroom and learn what you're supposed to do, learn how to do it and let's get on the practice field and work.
"The good news is that we get to play. We get to play on Sunday and that's what they love to do. And that's what we love, is to play the games. As long as you're in the season, there's always the next challenge, that next Sunday. That's where we are now."
The Lions have been criticized heavily in the Detroit area after a disappointing season, and Jauron says the players are just as disappointed as the fans.
"We want the playoffs just like you want it and our fans want it," he said. "You can't imagine how badly they want it but now we don't have that. We do have the game and they do have each other, and that's a lot."
Teddy Lehman and Alex Lewis went on injured reserve relatively early in the season, depriving the team of its two top backups and best nickel and dime backers.
This week, strongside linebacker Boss Bailey is out and middle linebacker Earl Holmes is questionable because of a quadriceps injury.
Frustrating is hardly a strong enough work for Bailey, who will be missing his third game of the season.
"It's frustrating," Bailey said. "Nobody wants to miss games, nobody wants to be out or even be considered that they might be out. I'm a competitor, I want to go out there and compete but this is part of the game."
The Lions are down to barely enough players to fill the linebacker positions if Holmes is unable to play. Without him they would have weakside starter James Davis and four backups - Donte' Curry, Wali Rainer and two recently signed players, LeVar Woods and Nate Wayne.
BY THE NUMBERS: 13.75 - The Lions' average point total in the four games Jeff Garcia has been the starting quarterback; they are 1-3 in those games. The Lions averaged slightly better - 16.44 points per game - in the nine games started by quarterback Joey Harrington; they are 3-6 in those games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It is one of the reasons we are kind of where we are, because we do things at the wrong time. We do the wrong things at the wrong time." - Lions interim coach Dick Jauron on a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on defensive tackle Shaun Rogers that helped set up Green Bay for its game-winning overtime field goal.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Packers coach Mike Sherman, perhaps fearing for his job, is determined to rally his 3-10, downtrodden troops to a four-game winning streak down the stretch.
"Obviously, everybody is aware we haven't won nearly as many as we would have liked to, and I wish we were playing in the playoffs right now," Sherman said. "But, these are our playoff games; this is all we have. So, (Sunday's overtime win over Detroit) was the first round of the playoffs for us."
Now, it's on to the make-believe divisional round Monday night at equally disappointing Baltimore. The unappealing nationally televised matchup still has something going for it, however.
The Packers and the 4-9 Ravens are in the hunt for a top-five pick in the first round of next year's draft. Green Bay all but played itself out of the Reggie Bush sweepstakes by eking out the victory over the Lions — it trails 1-12 Houston by two games for the worst record in the league.
As it stands now, the Packers would have the No. 5 pick. A weakness-of-schedule tiebreaker knocks them behind the Saints and the Jets, both also 3-10 teams.
Although there was a school of thought endorsed by a segment of Green Bay fans before the last game that the team should go winless the rest of the year so it possibly would land the coveted top pick, it wasn't shared by anyone within the organization.
Never mind that the Packers, accustomed the last 10 years to making their first selection in the bottom third of the opening round, haven't had a No. 1 choice since grabbing Iowa quarterback Randy Duncan in 1959.
"Winning is always good. I think it's good for this team," said general manager Ted Thompson, oblivious to the pleas made for Bush. "Those were difficult conditions (Sunday), and to win a game in a sort of slugging match, that requires some character. I think it's always better to win. It's good for the players, and it's good for the organization."
Indeed, there may not have been a Brett Favre at quarterback in Green Bay had the Packers not scored a rare victory to end the 1988 season. They went on the road and beat the Phoenix Cardinals to finish 4-12.
The win handed over the No. 1 draft pick the following spring to Dallas, which took quarterback Troy Aikman, a future Hall of Famer. The Packers were resigned to No. 2 and used the pick on offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, one of the all-time draft busts.
With dubious history as its guide, it actually might be in Green Bay's best interest to win out this season and not subject itself to the torture of a top-five pick. The Packers last were in such a supposedly enviable position in 1992 and got burned at No. 5 by taking cornerback Terrell Buckley, who wore out his welcome after just three years.
Favre, whose future beyond this season is foremost on just about everyone's minds in the organization, believes an about-face with a few wins at the end can brighten the team's outlook for 2006.
"I don't think you lose (a winning attitude) in a year. And, I don't think you gain a losing attitude in a year," Favre said. "But, it has to start one way or the other somewhere. I think how we finish or how we've played this year will carry over to next year. I know there will be a lot of new faces, I'm sure, (and) things change. But, the Packer pride or tradition will carry over. The guys in the locker room will be a big part of that, one way or the other."
Going off information relayed by his mother, Favre said Wednesday that French, whom the family affectionately refers to as Mee-Maw, has been occasionally incoherent and has weakness on one side of her body.
"The fact that she's in there with a stroke is not good. But, I think she'll be OK," Favre said.
The timing of the situation comes less than a week before Favre and the Packers play a late-December game on a Monday night.
On the eve of Green Bay's Monday night game at Oakland on Dec. 22, 2003, Favre's father, Irvin, died of a heart attack in Mississippi. Favre decided to stay put with the team in California and honored his dad's memory with perhaps the greatest game of his storied career. He completed 22 of 30 passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Packers to a stirring 41-7 victory. His near-perfect passer rating of 154.9 remains a personal high.
"Obviously, the Oakland game has a special place in my heart because that's when Dad had passed away," Favre said Wednesday as he recounted his fondest Monday night moments. "The fact that we won and the way we won the game and the fact we were playing for a shot at the playoffs, it meant a lot to us."
Franklin, in his first year working in the NFL, is a former college coaching colleague of new Kansas State head coach Ron Prince. They worked together for a year at James Madison.
Prior to coming to Green Bay as the replacement for Ray Sherman, who took the same job with the Tennessee Titans, Franklin was the receivers coach at Maryland for five years.
Meanwhile, Turner Gill, the Packers' director of player development, has interviewed for the vacant position of head coach at the University at Buffalo.
Turner, a former standout at Nebraska and a longtime aide with the Cornhuskers, is in his first year with the Packers. He's assisted Franklin on the field with the receivers.
"With Turner, the opportunity to become a head coach has always hung out there," Packers head coach Mike Sherman said Wednesday. "With James, he really hasn't looked into (the college position) at all. It's just something that surfaced here recently, and he made me aware of it."
"I deserved it," Whitticker conceded Wednesday. "(The penalty) was slowing up a drive. Momentum-wise, we kept on going back. That's constructive criticism. You have to be able to take it."
Asked how harsh Favre's tone of voice was, Whitticker related, "It wasn't that bad. I don't even remember what he said, to tell you the truth."
The coaches will evaluate Whitticker on a day-to-day basis this week in practice before deciding whether to keep him in the starting lineup. The seventh-round draft pick was demoted from the spot he's held since the start of the season for the Dec. 4 loss at Chicago.
Whitticker also was responsible for the Lions blocking a 38-yard field-goal attempt by Ryan Longwell in Sunday's game.
Carroll returned to the game on defense in the third quarter but didn't go back to his return duties. He averaged only 15 yards in three returns Sunday. For the season, he's returned seven kicks for an average of just 17.4 yards.
The Packers rank last in the league on kickoff returns with an average of 18.8 yards.
Rookie RB Noah Herron, signed off Pittsburgh's practice squad two weeks ago, also is getting some work in practice on returns.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 — Players on Green Bay's current 53-man roster who weren't born the last time the Packers played a game at Baltimore, a 20-20 tie against the Colts in 1982.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know if I'd call that heads up. The way it worked out, it came out to be pretty heads up. Had they recovered that fumble, it could have been Sam ‘Goodbye' Gado." — Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley, touching on rookie running back Samkon Gado's impromptu flip of the football forward across the goal line as he was being tackled in the end zone in the fourth quarter Sunday night. The officials ruled it as an incomplete pass that nullified a would-be safety by Detroit and kept the score tied. The Packers went on to win 16-13 in overtime.