Game Preview: Detroit Lions (5-3) at Chicago Bears (5-3)

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A lot will be on the line this Sunday when the Bears host the Lions at Soldier Field. For starters, it’s a divisional battle, which always brings high drama and excitement. But with the Bears having beaten the Packers this past Monday night and with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffering a fractured collarbone that will keep him out for a reported 4-6 weeks, the NFC North is suddenly up for grabs.

And then there’s that pesky matter of how the Lions embarrassed the Bears at Ford Field back in Week 4. That still rubs the Bears the wrong way.

The biggest story of the week was the return of Jay Cutler to the practice field, ahead of schedule by at least a week and a half. The original timetable given following the torn groin Cutler endured during the Redskins game was that Cutler would be out “at least” four weeks, and then they’d evaluate him week to week after that. But due to Cutler’s aggressive rehab, he got back on the field in about two and a half weeks.

Now the discussion from around Bears Nation is weather Cutler is returning too soon, and after backup quarterback Josh McCown’s incredible performance against the Packers, many fans want Cutler to rest his groin until he’s at 100% and let McCown keep leading the offense.

Unfortunately, if Cutler struggles against the Lions this week, the naysayers and second-guessers will have a field day criticizing him and the Bears for “putting him back in the lineup too soon.” But Cutler was cleared by the doctors, and I don’t think he would have returned, nor would coach Marc Trestman allowed him to have, if the doctors didn’t feel like he was healthy enough to play as normal. Bottom line is that I was impressed with McCown’s performance, as we all were, but Cutler is the better quarterback and, as McCown has stated: “It’s Jay’s team.”

The game serves as an opportunity for Cutler to redeem himself after a poor showing in the earlier meeting between these two teams. With an upgraded offense and the tutelage of Trestman, Cutler has been having one of his best seasons as a pro, and certainly his best in Chicago. But his one bad game came against the Lions when he turned the ball over four times — three interceptions and one fumble. The fumble was returned for a score, and one of the interceptions — a pick in the second quarter immediately following a Lions touchdown — was returned to the 2-yard line and led to a second-straight Lions touchdown that wound up burying the Bears.

So, how will Cutler rebound? Will he take better care of the ball this time around? Will he make it through the game healthy against a tenacious Lions defense led by defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy, cornerbacks Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis, and safety Louis Delmas — among others?

The bigger question this week should be, how do the Bears prepare for a Lions offense that is clicking, and one that ran all over the Bears in the teams’ first meeting? Reggie Bush is a solid football player, but he’s not an All-Pro running back, which is what the Bears made him look like back in Week 4. In that meeting, Bush rushed 18 times for 139 yards and a touchdown. His longest run was a 37-yard score. He picked up large chunks of yardage due to poor tackling and missed gap assignments. It was the kind of performance — after the Bears opened the season 3-0 — that really exposed some deficiencies in the Bears’ defense to the rest of the league.

It’s not bad enough that the Bears have struggled to stop the run this year (ranked 29th in the league at defending it). But they haven’t exactly been able to defend the pass, either, and that’s a scary proposition against quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions offense is ranked third overall with an average of 416 yards per game, 317.9 of which come by the pass. Stafford currently ranks third in the NFL behind only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees with 2,617 passing yards. Johnson, likewise, is ranked third in receiving yards with 821. In short, this could be a situation where the Bears have to pick their poison between defending the run or the pass. And it adds all the more pressure on the Bears offense to produce and put points on the board.

The stakes are certainly high in this one. With the Lions already having beaten the Bears earlier in the season, another win this Sunday would give them the season tiebreaker, which would make it all the more difficult on the Bears in the hunt for a playoff spot. The Bears can’t allow that to happen — and they know it.

I think we’ll see a much more focused and intense Bears squad than the one that looked overmatched in Detroit back in September. I still expect mistakes to be made here or there and points to be plentiful, but I have confidence in Trestman’s gang to rise to the occasion and take care of business on their home field.

Prediction: Chicago 34, Detroit 30

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