The Bears enjoy a bye in Week Seven before hosting the struggling 49ers in Week Eight, when they hope to further develop an offense that has been a huge surprise this season.
Individually, wide receiver Bernard Berrian is one of the key reasons the Bears have a legitimate offense to complement their championship-caliber defense.
The lean, third-year speedster had 19 catches for 413 yards in the first five weeks of the season, more yards than any player in the NFC, and he led the Bears and was tied for the NFL lead with four receiving touchdowns. Berrian's 21.7-yard average per catch was better than anyone in the league with more than ten catches.
"It's really fun when we're winning," Berrian said. "We were winning last year, but I don't think we were having too much fun; on the offense side at least. We were winning, but we weren't winning the way we wanted to win. But now we're putting up points, and we're doing it how we envisioned it. We're moving the ball."
Nobody on the Bears moves the ball faster or farther than Berrian.
He has all five of the team's receptions of 40 yards or longer this season. In Weeks Four and Five, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound, third-round draft choice from Fresno State has 205 receiving yards on just 7 catches for a 29.3-yard average.
"He's a big-play threat," Bears coach Lovie Smith. "After five games, what you see right now, is what you are. He's the big-play threat that we want. Teams are ganging up, stopping our run, so we have to be able to hit some of the deep passes. That's what Bernard gives us."
Berrian's always been gifted with exceptional speed, but he missed five games with a thumb injury last season and then, after he came back and led the Bears with five catches for 68 yards in the playoff loss to the Panthers, he suffered a hip injury that ended his day early.
One look at Berrian's slight frame and spindly legs would lead to questions about his durability. That's a hurdle he's worked hard to clear, pumping iron as never before and adding bulk without losing any speed.
"He's bigger, stronger, and he's more comfortable with what we're doing with the system, and that definitely helps," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "And he's having some success. He and Rex have something going, and they get a lot of confidence. A lot of it just has to do with maturity, being a year older."
After last season, Berrian found himself in an unproven group behind go-to guy Muhsin Muhammad. In 2005 Justin Gage began the season as the Bears' other starter, was beaten out for the job by rookie Mark Bradley, and then reclaimed the job after Bradley's knee injury. Berrian was just another guy in the mix along with converted cornerback Rashied Davis.
"He got in the weight room, got stronger and got his body in much better shape," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "He's more physical than he's been in the past, which has given him more endurance, and he's worked. Sometimes I have to kick him out of the weight room now, which is a good thing.
"Everything that I asked him to do in the off-season, he's done. When you see guys doing those things, and then you see them having success, it gives me credibility for things that I've told him, and it gives him credibility on the football field."
The deep threat that Berrian provides has been the perfect complement to a Bears offense that already was strong on the ground and had a solid veteran presence in Muhammad but lacked great speed. Berrian's home-run ability has enabled the Bears to stretch opposing defenses and is expected to open up the slow-starting run game now that opposing defenses have to respect the long ball.
As impressive as quarterback Rex Grossman has been in his break-out season, he couldn't have done it without Berrian, who has at least one catch of more than 40 yards in four of the Bears' five games.
It is too late to head off the "Fire Millen" signs, too late for a fast start and, very possibly, too late to make a run at the Chicago Bears in the NFC North division race.
But, with their first win finally under their belts, the Lions finally have a reason to feel good about themselves and to feel some confidence in everything coach Rod Marinelli has been preaching since they went to training camp in late July.
"We've been so close in four of the (first) five games to really taking control of football games and winning football games," quarterback Jon Kitna said. "It's never easy in this league.
"We were so close in those other four weeks that it was getting discouraging, there's no question but ... like I said, I think what's happened now is that we've broken the seal off of this thing and guys see what happens when you do what you're asked to do."
The 20-17 victory over Buffalo on Sunday at Ford Field broke the Lions' five-game losing streak and gave Marinelli his first victory as an NFL head coach. In terms of its immediate impact on the division race or the NFL as a whole, it probably doesn't mean much.
An anti-Millen sign — aimed at the team president with a 22-64 record in his five-plus seasons with the Lions — popped up in the east end zone in the early moments of the fourth quarter and was quickly removed by stadium security.
It will take more than one win every six games to erase the fans' smoldering discontent and the Lions might have to run the table to be assured of their first playoff berth since 1999, the final full season under Bobby Ross.
But as they prepare for the New York Jets next Sunday, Marinelli and his players finally have a reason to believe there might be better things to come. In small doses this season perhaps but in bigger doses next year and thereafter.
The players gave Marinelli a game ball to mark the occasion but he already had turned his attention to the games yet to come.
"I look at it as that marathon," he said. "It's just that I'm driving a marathon, that's what it's all about — to win. I love winning, obviously. But I'll watch the game and you got to be ‘we got to do this better,' so that's (what) my process is.
"I just like this team, I just like them. Five of these six games have gone down to the wire and now this one is such a big one for us — to come down at the end and find a way to win a game."
Unlike the week before, when the Lions gave up 23 fourth quarter points in a 26-17 loss to Minnesota — or in previous weeks marked by seven-point losses to Green Bay and St. Louis, and a three-point loss to Seattle — the Lions did just that: They found a way to win instead of a way to lose a game.
And they did it under some of the most unlikely circumstances — with three of their starting offensive linemen and one of their starting defensive linemen out of the lineup with injuries, with their star receiver Roy Williams playing with a neck so sore he could barely turn his head and playing in a sports community that is so focused on the Tigers' upcoming World Series visit that the Lions get little attention aside from the sarcasm attendant with their 0-5 start.
Williams eventually warmed up his stiff neck and posted his best totals ever — a career-high 10 receptions for a career-high 161 yards and a touchdown; running back Kevin Jones celebrated his first 100-yard rushing game since Dec. 26, 2004, the next-to-last game of his rookie season, finishing with 127 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
And the Lions defense, which had exactly one sack in the previous four games, made life miserable for Bills quarterback J.P. Losman, with five sacks and an interception. Defensive end James Hall, who had two sacks in the season opener, was credited with 3.5 of the sacks.
It was Jones who came up with perhaps the biggest non-scoring play of the game when he caught a swing pass from Kitna on a third-and-five play from the Lions' own 27-yard line. He gained nine yards on the play and stayed in bounds, enabling the Lions to run the clock down to 22 seconds before finally giving the ball up on a punt.
"You can't measure character in guys and that's what's been built in the first five weeks," Kitna said. "And, hopefully, it will continue to build."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Given the gloomy outlook for a team off to a 1-4 start for the third consecutive season, Packers coach Mike McCarthy might be compelled sooner than later to start phasing out Ahman Green as the featured running back.
Expectations harbored by the new coaching staff that Green would revert to the prolific form that annually earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl from 2001-04 have been washed away by persistent health problems. The aftereffects of surgery on Green's right thigh after he sustained a season-ending ruptured quadriceps tendon last October have rendered him ineffective in this comeback season thus far.
Sure, Green churned out 110 yards in the opener — his first 100-yard rushing output since November 2004 — but a good chunk came late in the game with Chicago sitting back on defense in its 26-0 victory.
Green gained a total of 105 yards in the next two games, averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. Sore hamstrings, at least partly attributable to the leg injury, kept him sidelined the past two outings before the Packers had their bye.
There's no guarantee Green, 29, will be 100 percent healthy the rest of the season. For now, though, McCarthy plans to stick with the franchise's No. 2 all-time leading rusher, but only on the condition that Green stays out of the training room for anything other than a tape job and a little preventive treatment.
"Ahman Green is a fine football player. He's proven that in the past here; he's proven it here just in this season. He's got a lot of football left in him. I believe he's a difference-maker when he's in there," McCarthy said. "(But) we need to be real about what's going on here. Are we talking about accountability and availability? And, right now, his availability hasn't existed the last two (games). So, with that, the other guys have had opportunities and have done well."
Second-year backups Vernand Morency and Noah Herron indeed gave promising showings in Green's most recent absence.
The shifty Morency, acquired in a trade earlier in the season from Houston for 2005 team rushing leader Samkon Gado, rushed for 99 yards in the Week 4 loss at Philadelphia. Morency, however, literally dropped the ball with two fumbles at the outset of the Week 5 loss to St. Louis.
Herron, whom Green Bay signed off Pittsburgh's practice squad for the final month last season, replaced Morency against the Rams and gained 106 yards on just 20 carries. Previously relegated to third-down duties, Herron demonstrated good vision and was decisive in making the one cut in the gradually progressing zone-blocking scheme.
"I don't think you can look past Noah's performance," McCarthy said. "We say it all the time — a person is given an opportunity. He cashed in on it. So, I think we need to keep in touch with that. We've got guys (in reserve) that are improving and doing the things we're asking them to do."
The same can't be said about the injury-riddled Green, whose workhorse days of carrying the football 20 to 25 times a game appear to be behind him.