Coming off a season-saving, confidence-building overtime victory at Philadelphia, the Detroit Lions head to Chicago to take on the Bears in a Monday Night match-up between bitter rivals.
Here are five storylines to watch:
1. Perceptions change so rapidly in the NFL. After a shaky Week 2 loss to Green Bay, the Bears were getting ripped and downgraded. Now they’re back up to No. 4 in FOX analyst Brian Billick’s weekly power rankings.
A week ago, the Lions were being written off following their 1-3 start. Now they can put themselves back in the playoff conversation with a second straight road victory.
“We haven’t played our complete game yet,” receiver Nate Burleson said. “That’s going to be really exciting to watch. We still have a great game to show everybody who’s waiting for it. It is coming.”
If it comes Monday night, the Lions could create a logjam in the NFC North Division by bringing the first-place Bears (4-1) back to the pack.
“It would be great, not only for us to be .500 but everybody in our division would be within a game of each other,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It’s definitely a big one.”
2. Chicago’s Soldier Field has been a house or horrors for Stafford, who hasn’t won there in three tries.
He injured a knee in a 48-24 loss as a rookie in 2009, separated his right (throwing) shoulder in a 19-14 loss in the 2010 season opener and then threw four interceptions while playing with a broken finger on his throwing hand in a 37-13 loss last year.
Stafford scoffed at any Windy City jinx factor. He said he just tries to put those negative experiences out of his mind.
This season has been a tale of two halves for him. He has no touchdowns, five interceptions and a 53.6 passer rating in the first half of five games. In the second halves, he has four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 97.3 rating.
His passer rating goes from 48.1 in the first quarter to 58.7 in the second quarter to 80.1 in the third quarter to 103.9 in the fourth quarter to 118.8 in overtime.
Former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, now an ESPN television analyst, said that Stafford “couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat” for the first three quarters last week at Philadelphia.
But when the fourth quarter came around, “I thought Joe Montana was on the field for the Detroit Lions,” Jaworski said.
“I obviously want to play like Joe Montana all four quarters,” Stafford, who has rallied his team to eight fourth-quarter/overtime comeback victories in his 34 NFL regular-season starts, said with a grin. “But just doing whatever it takes to win, that’s what I’m all about.”
3. The last time these teams met, there was an altercation between Stafford and Bears cornerback D.J. Moore that led to both benches clearing.
Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs came out this week and said that these division rivals simply don’t like each other.
Many of the Lions agree that there’s bad blood between the two teams.
“I would say that’s fair,” Detroit defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. “Everybody knows what happened last year when we went there. It got pretty heated.”
“There’s something there,” Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “When we get out there on the field, there’s a lot of words being exchanged.”
Center Dominic Raiola added: “Whenever we play anybody in the (NFC) North, there’s no love lost. They don’t like us, we don’t like them. That’s how it goes.”
Vanden Bosch isn’t too concerned about how the Lions are viewed in Chicago.
“I don’t know if anybody likes us as a team,” he said. “We’re not trying to win any congeniality contest. We don’t really care.”
Neither do the Bears, which is going to make this a slugfest from start to finish.
4. The Bears’ defense has scored as many touchdowns and it has allowed (five each) in the first five games.
Chicago is tied for first in the NFL in takeaways with 17 (13 interceptions, four fumble recoveries) and tied for fourth in sacks with 18.
During a three-game winning streak, the Bears have outscored the opposition 98-27. They have returned five interceptions for touchdowns during that time.
“They’re a very opportunistic bunch,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said.
It’s a tough assignment right now for Stafford.
“You can’t play tentative,” he said. “You’ve got to be aggressive. We’re an aggressive offense by nature. We’re going to go out there and do what we do.
“At the same time, you definitely have to be conscious that these guys have a lot of confidence right now on defense.”
5. The Lions’ punt and kick return coverage units made some progress last week. At least they didn’t give up any touchdowns after allowing two punt and two kick returns for scores in the previous two games.
But this is going to be a severe test. Chicago’s Devin Hester has scored 12 touchdowns on punt returns in his career, five on kick returns and one on a missed field. He ranks third in NFL history with a 12.6-yard average on punt returns, the best in more than five decades.
“He’s the best at his position ever,” Lions punter Nick Harris said.
Hester’s numbers actually are down this year, though. He’s averaging 7.8 yards per punt return with no touchdowns. His longest has been 23 yards. Jacksonville held him to eight yards on four returns plus one fair catch in the Bears’ last game.
In other words, he’s due to break one soon.
“Evaluate him at the end of the year, I think you’ll see he’s probably the same guy,” Harris said.
Under the circumstances, the best strategy for the Lions might be to punt the ball completely out of bounds and just not risk it.
You don’t spit into the wind and you don’t put the ball in Devin Hester’s hands if you don’t have to.
Cornerback Jacob Lacey (concussion) is listed as out for the Lions while cornerback Bill Bentley (shoulder) is questionable and defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) questionable.
Rookie Jonte Green or Alphonso Smith, who was released before the season opener and re-signed Thursday, is expected to start at cornerback.
Receiver Alshon Jeffery (hand) is out for the Bears.