Technically, mathematically, these three consecutive home games against opponents with losing records aren’t "must-win" yet for the Detroit Lions.
Realistically, however, the Lions better beat Chicago, Tampa Bay and Minnesota — who have a combined record of 11-22 — if they expect to avoid another second-half collapse and make the playoffs this time.
First things first: It’s Chicago in the annual Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field. The Bears have won their last two games, but only because they played Tampa Bay and Minnesota, both at home.
Here are three storylines to follow plus a prediction:
— So many weapons, so much disappointment.
You can say that about the Lions’ offense, but it’s true for the Bears, too.
The Lions have playmakers such as Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush and Matthew Stafford. For the Bears, it’s arguably just as impressive with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Jay Cutler.
Big names, big reputations, but it hasn’t translated to point production for either of these teams this year.
The Lions rank 28th in scoring (17.9 points per game), ahead of only Tennessee, the New York Jets, Oakland and Jacksonville, who have combined for a total of six victories.
A year ago, the Lions finished sixth in total offense (392.1 yards per game). This year, they rank 21st (332.5).
It’s a similar story for the Bears, who have gone from second in scoring (27.8 points per game) last year to 20th (21.5) and from eighth in total offense (381.8 yards per game) to 16th (346.5).
"You can’t underestimate these guys," Lions coach Jim Caldwell warned. "They have a lot of firepower."
The difference in the two teams, the reason the Lions are still legitimate playoff contenders and the Bears aren’t, is that Detroit’s defense ranks first in points allowed (17.3) and Chicago is 31st (27.5).
If the Lions’ offense, which hasn’t scored a touchdown in its last two games against New England and Arizona, doesn’t have a breakout day against these Bears, then you have to wonder if it’s ever going to happen.
This will be Johnson’s fourth game back from an ankle injury. In the last two games, he’s caught a total of nine passes for 117 yards, which was an average week for him a couple years ago.
When asked about that lack of production and how things are going with Stafford these days, Johnson responded: "I’ll let Matt answer that."
Johnson insists he’s the "same guy" that broke the NFL record for receiving yards in a season two years ago, but a run of injuries have certainly take a toll on him.
"Anytime you’re coming off of any type of ankle injury, sticking that foot in the ground and that explosion off of it, those are the things you really want to get back," Johnson admitted.
Stafford, meanwhile, conceded that the offense is still trying to find an identity in Week 13. A new system under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi combined with key injuries have led to much of the inconsistency.
"I think there’s still a little bit of a period of trying to figure out what we’re really good at," Stafford said. "When you look at the offenses that are really successful, they have some things that they can go to that they know they’re good at, that they know they can do against pretty much anybody in any look.
"With the amount of turnover we’ve had with certain guys being in and out upfront, at the skill position, it’s been difficult to kind of develop that. We’ll continue to try to find that and figure out what we’re best at."
Johnson thinks it’s inevitable that it will happen.
"We have too many playmakers not to be explosive," Johnson said.
The question is when. They’re running out of chances, but the Bears’ defense could be coming to the rescue just in time.
— Brotherly love will have to be put aside for about three hours.
Lions receiver Corey Fuller talks with his younger brother, Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, almost on a daily basis. That conversation could be in the form of some good-natured trash-talking on the field.
Corey, a sixth-round draft pick last year, has 13 receptions for 191 yards and one touchdown for Detroit. Kyle, a first-round pick this year, has three interceptions and three forced fumbles for Chicago.
Provided Kyle is able to play after suffering a knee injury on Sunday, this will be the first time that the Fuller brothers have ever faced each other in a real game. They were teammates at Virginia Tech.
Kyle is more likely to be matched against one of the Lions’ top receivers, but you never know. There could be a moment he lines up across from Corey.
"We might crack a smile, but then we’ll be ready to get into it," Corey said.
Their parents, along with other close relatives and friends, will be in town for the Fuller showdown, and to celebrate afterward with a Thanksgiving dinner.
"I’m trying to get as much Lions’ gear to my family so they have to cheer for us," Corey said.
His parents already have a jersey made special for them that is split in half — one side Lions, the other side Bears.
Kyle could be a game-time decision because of the injury, according to Bears coach Marc Trestman. The younger Fuller apparently has been eagerly anticipating this game, but not just to see his brother. He wants the opportunity to cover Johnson.
"He wants to go up against the best," Corey said. "Calvin will beat him. It will be fun. I want Jeremy Ross to beat him. I want Golden Tate to beat him. I want everybody to beat him."
— The turkey always tastes a little better after a victory.
The Lions actually had forgotten about that until they routed Green Bay last year to end a nine-year losing streak on Thanksgiving.
This game marks the 75th in the traditional holiday event for Detroit. The Lions are 34-38-2 overall, including 7-8 against the Bears.
It’s a quick turnaround for both teams with the Lions coming off a Sunday loss at New England while the Bears defeated Tampa Bay at home.
"Nobody is happier than us that our game is on Thursday," Stafford said. "We’re ready to get back out there. Anytime you lose a game, it’s disappointing. Two in a row is that much more. You just have to find a way to pick yourself up."
The national TV audience will help.
"It’s a blast paying on Thanksgiving," Stafford said. "I love it. I know all of the guys on the team love it. It’s a heck of a turnaround to play Thursday at 12:30 p.m., but you get a little bit of that extra half-bye afterwards (nine days off before their next game on December 7)."
For Caldwell, the Thanksgiving game brings back fond memories of football and the holiday while growing up in Beloit, Wis.
"We would oftentimes go out and guys in the neighborhood would have the ‘Cranberry Bowl,’" Caldwell said. "That happened early in the morning before the games came on (TV). Sometimes there would be snow on the ground. Little guys out there, mimicking our favorite heroes and all that kind of stuff. You remember those days."
As for how he’ll celebrate Thanksgiving this time, Caldwell said, "Depends on how well we play."