Bears coach Lovie Smith likes to break the season down into four-game quarters and compare it to a football game, and by that standard it's easy to dismiss his team's 1-3 start as just one bad quarter with three quarters left to get back in the game.
But the reality is, if the Bears don't open the second quarter of their season with a victory over the Packers on national TV Sunday night, this game — this season — are over. The Bears have never in franchise history started a season 1-4 and made the playoffs, and since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only five NFL teams have made the playoffs after starting 1-4.
At 1-4, the Bears' best-case scenario is that they would be ahead of just two of the 16 NFC teams, only six of which make the postseason. They would be four games behind the 4-0 Packers and at least two behind the Lions.
Despite their disparate records, the Bears are capable of toppling the undefeated Packers, who aren't nearly as impressive as their record. The four teams they've defeated have a total of five victories. With two or three injured defensive starters back, which is possible, the Bears could leave Lambeau Field with a 2-3 record and new life in an NFC that might have one great team at best.
The Bears discovered the perfect formula last week against the Lions: Torment the quarterback with a relentless pass rush. They sacked Jon Kitna five times in the first three quarters and forced him to lose a fumble. The only problems were that the intense pass-rush pressure subsided in the fourth quarter, and the Bears were outmanned in the back seven because of injuries.
Well, that Brian Griese wasting two perfectly good scoring chances with interceptions and giving the Lions a touchdown off a third pick. But Griese was understandably rusty with two years between starts, and he should be sharper Sunday.
Packers quarterback Brett Favre is much more adept at escaping the rush than is Kitna, and he's having his best season in years. But Favre has a long history of throwing interceptions in bunches when he's hurried, including 47 the previous two seasons with just 38 TD passes. The Bears picked him off three times last season with five sacks, and they intercepted Favre six times in 2005 with four sacks.
Pressuring Favre should be easier because the Packers have no running game to speak of. They're averaging a league-worst 54 rushing yards per game, about half the NFL average and 20 yards less than the next-worst team. Brandon Jackson, the Packers' leading rusher, is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry with a long run of 9 yards.
So the Bears can forget about the run and get after Favre. The long-time Bears nemesis has played more conservatively this season, throwing just two interceptions, but he has yet to face a team capable of bringing the heat the way the Bears can.
If there's one thing the Bears have shown the ability to do this season, it's rush the passer. They're tied for the NFL lead with 16 sacks. Defensive ends Mark Anderson and Adewale Ogunleye were nearly unstoppable for much of the game last week, and linebacker Brian Urlacher has once again become a blitz factor. With defensive tackle Tommie Harris another week removed from a sprained knee in Week 3, the Bears can have Favre running for his life and tossing the ball up for grabs.
"We talk about finishing the game, and for whatever reason we haven't been able to," coach Lovie Smith said. "Up until late in the third quarter (vs. the Lions), I thought we were playing pretty good defense. I didn't picture that many points being put up on the board in the fourth quarter, but you can't let your guard down at all. You have to give Detroit a lot of the credit. They forced action. They finished the game and we didn't."
"We threw the ball a lot," Smith said. "I just think it's hard to find a lot of good in anything you do if you lose the game. That's not the type of effort we need to have from any of our team, (from) me on down. To talk about good things really is pretty hard on a day like today."
"Last year Brett Favre was my first guy I got a sack on," said Anderson, who had two last week. "I'm going to use that for motivation again, try to come back out there and get some more pressure on him and try to get this victory."
Anderson knows it won't be easy, though.
"He's an old guy, but he moves like a young guy," he said. "It's kind of crazy, but I think we'll get him down though."
But after practice later in the day, Ayanbadejo said everything was fine.
"Blood is thicker than water," he said. "We treat each other like brothers.
"He was upset because the shaving cream burned his eyes. Next time I'll definitely use whipped cream. It was a crime of passion; he hit me hard."
BY THE NUMBERS: 22-8 — Brett Favre's record against the Bears.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's an amazing quarterback. He's playing great football — the best I've seen him play since I've been on the Bears. To me, he's like the godfather of the league right now." — Bears DT Tommie Harris on Brett Favre.
Most of the Lions say it doesn't matter to them. They didn't know about it until reporters brought it up. They had nothing to do with it. And it will have no impact on the outcome of Sunday's game.
"Do you know about the streak?" a reporter asked.
"No, I don't," tight end Casey Fitzsimmons said.
"Do you know how many times the Lions have won at Washington?"
"Not a clue."
"Well, we're going for one right now."
So the Lions have never won at Washington. So they're 0-20 there, including three playoff games, dating to 1939. So their 17 straight losses in one city is an NFL record.
But it does matter, in a larger sense. The Lions have been a laughingstock of the league for a long time, and this is just another reminder of it.
"What's more irritating is to know that when you go into a place like D.C., they think they can beat you simply because they always have," said kicker Jason Hanson, a 16-year veteran who was around the last time the Lions visited Washington, in a January 2000 playoff game. "No matter how good you're doing, secretly they're whispering to each other, ‘Whatever, we're going to pound these guys.' There is something to that, I think.
"When you know that team has gained confidence simply because the Lions are showing up and they think they can beat you, now that's disappointing. That reflects poorly on all of us walking in there, especially those of us who have been here for a while."
The Lions are looking for respect, and to get it, they have to start stopping some of these streaks. (They also have lost 15 straight road games against Green Bay.) If they win this one, they will be off to a 4-1 start for the first time since 1991.
Which is kind of funny. They went 12-4 that year, setting a franchise record for victories. They earned their only playoff victory since 1957. And the season began and ended with losses at Washington.
Despite the Lions' 3-1 start this season, not everyone is on the bandwagon. The Lions have teased their fans before. They started 4-2 in 2004 and finished 6-10. And some are worried this is a mirage.
The one loss was brutal, a 56-21 shellacking at Philadelphia, and the three victories were against flawed teams without a quarterback in the class of the Eagles' Donovan McNabb.
But there is a feeling in the Lions' locker room that they are about to bust out. They are 3-1, and they haven't played their best yet. Coach Rod Marinelli, not known for hyperbole, said the Lions could be an elite team if they clean up some things — and don't get ahead of themselves.
Marinelli doesn't want the Lions looking at the big picture. He wants them to zero right back into the littlest picture possible.
"I don't even want to see anything right now," Marinelli said. "I just want to see the next day. I want to see their next breath. That's all I'm interested in — their next breath."
Certainly not things like their record at Washington.
"All that stuff doesn't have any bearing on us playing there," quarterback Jon Kitna said. "It makes for a good story. It does. It's something that people can talk about. The reality is for this football team, the last 10 years there's been a lot of teams they haven't beaten. You can have a new rallying cry every week, or you can focus on what you do."
Lots of guys put their hands in the air, but that doesn't explain how Rogers is so successful. "Lucky, I guess," Rogers said. Is it a combination of size, strength and a knack for the ball? "I don't know, man," Rogers said. "It might be a combination of all those things."
BY THE NUMBERS: 21 — Sacks the Lions have allowed, most in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was like, ‘Dang, I didn't know it was that big,' " — RB Tatum Bell, on looking at the hole in the seat of his pants after they ripped open, exposing his right buttocks, during Sunday's game against Chicago.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Donald Lee is a tight end possessed. For that matter, Bubba Franks is, too, though he won't say so himself.
To get a feel for the renaissance that has been unfolding at what was considered one of the weakest links of an offense not highly thought of before the season started, consider what Lee had to say Wednesday.
"My whole mindset for this game is take no prisoners," Lee declared.
The Sunday night matchup with the stud-linebacker-heavy Bears doesn't favor the Packers, even if an injured Lance Briggs doesn't play. No matter to Lee, who is relishing the opportunity to come out ahead again in a productive season thus far.
For all that has been made about Brett Favre's rediscovering the fountain of his youth and the rapport he's developed with the receiving trio of Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and rookie James Jones, Lee and Franks have been as vital in Green Bay's second-ranked passing offense.
Lee is well on his way to topping his season highs of 33 catches and 294 receiving yards in 2005, his first year with the Packers in 2005. He's had four receptions in each of the first four games, totaling 172 yards.
Franks, who lost his starting job to Lee in the offseason, has shown glimpses of his former Pro Bowl days with 11 receptions for 72 yards.
Together, the team's only two tight ends have three touchdowns — one more than the position group had all of last season.
A year removed from the nadir of his eight-year pro career, when he had a career-worst-tying 25 catches and no touchdowns for the first time, Franks doesn't consider the early-season rebound as vindication for his detractors.
"I don't care about what people think. It really doesn't matter," Franks said. "We're doing different things than we were doing last year. Last year, we were asked to do something which we weren't really comfortable with, we never really did it, so we kind of had to learn it on the run. We did the best we could.
"But, now, we're going back to the traditional tight end position. That's what we thrive in. It's not really a surprise how we're playing this year. Not at all."
Contributions in the passing realm from the tight ends, particularly Franks, were mitigated last season because first-year head coach Mike McCarthy frequently kept them in to block in max-protection sets.
McCarthy, the play-caller, and new offensive coordinator Joe Philbin reversed field in their offseason planning. Although they've been compelled to throw on nearly three of every four plays because of a nonexistent run game, they cut the tight ends loose off the line of scrimmage.
"I don't have to come into the game and lay my hat on pass protection. I can kind of work on my other things," Franks said.
What Franks did best his first five years in the league was hurt defenses inside their 20-yard line, hauling in 28 touchdowns. He has two this season, helping Green Bay soar to 10th in the league for red-zone efficiency (eight touchdowns in 13 incursions) after it was 31st in 2006 (16 touchdowns in 49 chances).
"We stretch the red zone a lot more than we did last year. That's really our main focus," Franks said. "We have to score points when we get down there. We can't really rely on field goals all the time."
Even between the 20s, where Lee excels as a capable vertical receiver, the tight ends have been an unusual focal point of the offense. McCarthy hasn't been shy to leave Favre in an empty backfield by going with the "leopard" formation — three receivers and the two tight ends.
With the Bears in their bread-and-butter Cover 2 defense, the windows should open over the middle for Lee and Franks to slide through and add to the renaissance.
"Just being in a zone (defense), it's who can get open fastest," Lee said. "Briggs does a good job of getting to the open guy. It's going to be a footrace come Sunday. Everybody wants the ball, so it's going to be kind of exciting."
That was on New Year's Eve at Soldier Field in Chicago, after Green Bay closed the season with a 26-7 win.
Favre said Wednesday his emotional episode was "spontaneous ... nothing fabricated" because he thought it might have been his farewell to football.
"I wanted to get everything out of it that night like I have throughout my career, and it just all kind of came to a head. I got caught in an awkward moment too," Favre said. "But, here I am. The last game I play this year, it may be the same way."
Head coach Mike McCarthy said that based on Favre's sheer emotion that night, "I think that would have been natural to say he's not coming back."
NBC has broadcast dibs on the first Packers-Bears matchup of this season Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
Since retirement is the farthest thing from Favre's mind in the midst of Green Bay's surprising 4-0 start, he probably won't be prone to shedding more tears with the cameras on him.
"I've had buddies and friends say, ‘You look terrible crying on national TV,' " Favre said.
Of the eight 4-0 predecessors, seven won league titles — in 1929, ‘30, ‘31, ‘44, ‘62, ‘65 and ‘66.
The sole exception was the 1998 team. It lost two straight after the initial four-game splurge and went 7-5 the rest of the regular season to finish 11-5 and in second place in the NFC Central.
The season ended abruptly with a 30-27 loss at San Francisco on the unforgettable Steve Young-to-Terrell Owens touchdown in the final seconds in an NFC divisional playoff. It was Mike Holmgren's last game as Packers head coach.
As such, the current group of Green Bay players isn't counting on a preordained trip to Arizona for Super Bowl XLII in February.
"This is a long season. People don't realize that," tight end Bubba Franks said. "If you start making predictions and worrying about stuff early on in the season, then it changes completely at the end of the season. You never know, give or take an injury here or there."
He has had runs of three games or more hitting the century mark for efficiency on five separate occasions.
Favre was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, his second such honor of the season. He also was recognized after the Week 2 win over the Giants.
In Sunday's 23-16 triumph at Minnesota, Favre completed 32 of 45 passes for 344 yards and two touchdowns, including a 16-yard strike to Greg Jennings that pushed Favre past Dan Marino for the league record for TD passes.
Gbaja-Biamila has a team-high 3 1/2 sacks this season.
He has terrorized the Bears with 11 sacks in 13 meetings, including a career-high four in the 2004 regular-season finale at Chicago.
BY THE NUMBERS: 119 — Consecutive passes thrown by Brett Favre without an interception, the fifth-longest flawless streak of his career. At the top of the list is 163, accomplished at the end of the 1995 season to the start of the ‘96 season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It would be easy to say, ‘Boy, he made the right decision.' I made the right decision. I'm glad I came back. I think I'm playing the way I'm capable of playing. But, it's all about where you are at the end of the year. We all know that. It's a feel-good story right now, I guess, if you want to say that. We're 4-0. There's nothing greater than that. (But) we're not in the playoffs; we haven't won the division. We're not even close. We've given ourselves a good cushion. ... The bottom line is where we end up at the end of the season. That's what it's all about. I'll tell you then if it was a good decision." — Quarterback Brett Favre, speaking Wednesday on whether it would have been a huge mistake had he decided to call it quits after last season. Favre, who turns 38 on Oct. 10, is off to a sensational start with eight touchdown passes and only two interceptions.