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Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Bears back in control of NFC North

By Michael C. Wright
ESPN.com

Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker booted Detroit out of the top spot in the NFC North on Monday night, connecting on a 61-yard field goal with 38 seconds remaining to give the Ravens an 18-16 win over the Lions, not to mention the Chicago Bears complete control of their own postseason destiny.

Zack Bowman
The Chicago Bears are back in control of their own destiny in the NFC North thanks to the Detroit Lions' last-minute loss on Monday.
The winner was one of six field goals Tucker made over the course of the game, as Detroit dropped the fourth game in its past five outings.

“Our emotions aren't important right now,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “We have two games to play. We're one down in our division. So I think that's the most important thing for us to keep in mind at this point. This was a setback, no question. We did control our own destiny until tonight.”

The Lions, now 7-7, relinquished that to the Bears, who have now won two in a row and head into Sunday's matchup at Philadelphia at 8-6.

Starting with a loss to the Lions on Nov. 10, the Bears played a month without starting quarterback Jay Cutler, who returned Sunday to lead the team's win over the Cleveland Browns. In addition, injuries on defense had severely limited production as Chicago surrendered an average of 379.5 yards over the past six games.

Strangely enough, the offense -- from a standpoint of execution, all the way down to play calling -- started to blossom during Cutler's absence, leading to the Bears gaining more than 400 yards in each of their past four games, including Sunday's contest against Cleveland's seventh-ranked defense. On the other side of the ball, the Bears are starting to gain continuity along the front four, in part because of the addition of Jeremiah Ratliff, while rookie linebackers Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene are finally settling in. It's also worth mentioning that cornerback Tim Jennings has virtually locked down two of the game's most dangerous receivers in Dez Bryant and Josh Gordon in back-to-back weeks, and veteran linebacker Lance Briggs is poised to return soon.

The recent developments beg the question of whether the Bears could be peaking at just the right time, while the Lions are fading.

Keep in mind that the Green Bay Packers are in the mix, too. At 7-6-1, the Packers are second in the division behind the Bears, which might make the Dec. 29 matchup between the teams even more compelling -- especially if quarterback Aaron Rodgers is back in the fold.

“Now, we've got to get some help from somebody,” Schwartz said. “Chicago and Green Bay play each other in the last game of the season. So one of those teams is going to get a loss. We've got two to play. We go and get two wins, we'll let everybody else sort it out.”

But those victories won't come easily. The Lions host the New York Giants in their home finale on Sunday before facing the Minnesota Vikings on the road to close out the regular season.

After Sunday's matchup at Philadelphia, the Bears finish up at home with the Packers.

Interestingly, back on Dec. 1, inside the visitors' locker room after the Bears dropped a 23-20 heartbreaker in overtime at the Metrodome, several players privately wondered if the team's postseason aspirations were cooked.

Publicly, Bears coach Marc Trestman used the proper clichés. He talked about needing help, and controlling what the Bears could control. The players parroted that. But they also latched onto Trestman's message and executed it to get to the point at which they find themselves now: back in control of their own destiny.

“It's very cliché,” left tackle Jermon Bushrod admitted, just hours before the Lions relinquished their hold on the division. “But we can only worry about the things that we can control. Everything else that's outside of this building in every other stadium that we're not playing in has nothing to do with us. We just have to worry about what we can control daily, and we'll let everything else work out.”

Surely, they couldn't have imagined it would go down like this.