NFC North: 2010-11 Regular Season

Matthew StaffordEric Hartline/US PresswireQB Matthew Stafford led the Lions, who are now 2-3 overall, to an OT victory against Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA -- I'll admit it. They fooled me again. Yep, I wrote off the Detroit Lions when their deficit grew to 10 points Sunday with 5 minutes, 18 seconds remaining at Lincoln Financial Field. I had this game marked as a victory for the Philadelphia Eagles and was already researching the history of 1-4 teams -- a cardinal sin in the Matthew Stafford Era.

"We're never out of any game," as coach Jim Schwartz summed it up.

Stafford led the Lions to three scores in the final 9:18 on this particular afternoon, flipping that deficit into a 26-23 overtime victory. As the Lions faced essentially the end of postseason contention, Stafford pulled off the seventh come-from-behind victory in his career. What was once an impressive oddity is now a habit: Comebacks now represent nearly half of his 15 career victories.

"We just don't think any other way," cornerback Chris Houston said. "We look at the score and we start figuring out what we need to do. We say, 'We're going to score right there and then the defense will get the ball back to the offense or whatever.' Our offense, we have Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. As long as we have them, we're never out of a game."

The worst mistake we could make, however, is to classify this occasion simply as another Stafford-Johnson production. Sure, Stafford threw for 220 yards and Johnson caught five passes for 107 yards after the start of the fourth quarter. But their late-game focus was clearly contagious Sunday.

"We don't ever give up," said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, "because we know we have a quarterback that doesn't give up."

The Lions sensed the Eagles' vulnerability even after a blown coverage allowed Jeremy Maclin to dash 70 yards on a slant pattern for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 23-13 lead. The Lions' defense elevated their game-long pounding of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and their offense started ad-libbing in a way that only a group of supremely confident teammates can do.

You saw tight end Tony Scheffler break downfield after a Stafford scramble to haul in an unplanned 57-yard pass to get in position for one score. There was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh batting down a third-down pass by Vick, allowing the Lions to regain possession for the game-tying drive.

Johnson redirected his route on the fifth play of that possession, looking for open space and then tight-roping the sideline moments after he and Stafford had made the adjustment during a brief conversation. The catch, confirmed by replay, put the Lions in position for Jason Hanson's game-tying 19-yard field goal.

The Lions then opened overtime with consecutive sacks of Vick, one by Cliff Avril and a second shared by Vanden Bosch and Nick Fairley. At that point, there suddenly was no doubting who would win the game. An angry crowd knew it as well and began filing out even before the Lions took over possession. Hanson won it on a 45-yard field goal on the Lions' fifth play of overtime.

"The crazy thing is, we almost expect it," Vanden Bosch said. "If we're close and we're in the fourth quarter, we almost expect that we'll come back and win it. I guess that's a good thing, but it would be nice to jump out to a lead and hold on to a lead."

Yes, it's fair to wonder when the Lions can start mixing in some conventional victories. They've needed fourth-quarter comebacks in both victories this season -- including Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams -- and Stafford said, "We can't make it this hard on ourselves every week."

And let's not forget that the Lions had 16 penalties enforced against them Sunday -- including 10 for a false start or encroachment -- and didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Stafford had completed only 7 of 21 passes and was on the way to one of the worst games of his career.

The rational part of me wants to suggest that most every team will lose under those circumstances. But Stafford gives the Lions an edge in those situations, and his teammates are now running with it. His ability to brush aside failure and embrace hope is real and undeniable.

"I know those guys believe in me," Stafford said, "and I believe in them. We had chances to make plays, whether I missed them or they weren't made, we understand that's part of the game of football. It's not always going to be perfect and it's not always going to be pretty."

The Lions can't win all of their games with comebacks, but with Stafford we can say with some confidence that they're going to steal a few more than most teams. It's an extra boost of confidence that a 2-3 team needs in a highly competitive division.

"You could feel this was a big step for us, as a team, playing team football," Schwartz said. "A lot of spirit, guys picking each other up. That's a good sign for things to come for this team."

We can't say where this victory will take the Lions. But we should darn well know not to count them out. Not for the playoffs or anything else. I won't make that mistake again.

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CHICAGO -- After Week 9, skeptics wondered how the Chicago Bears -- then 5-3 -- could scratch out the five additional victories it would take for them to reach the magic 10 wins required to make the playoffs.

The schedule looked tough: a road game against
Miami, and a home outing against Minnesota, followed by Sunday’s matchup at Soldier Field against the Eagles.

Three wins later, the Bears (8-3) -- after blasting the Eagles 31-26 -- are tied for the second-best record in the NFC, which could mean home-field advantage for the playoffs if the team finds a way to maintain its momentum.

But instead of going into detail about all that, let’s get into this statement victory by the Bears, who should no longer be taken lightly by national pundits. This team is for real.

What it means: The national perception of this team finally changes, because the Bears resoundingly proved themselves to be the real deal against a red-hot Eagles team that came into Soldier Field on Sunday with a three-game winning streak. More importantly, the Bears took sole possession of the NFC North lead by virtue of the win and Green Bay’s 20-17 loss at Atlanta.

Perhaps it’s premature. But not only is Chicago eyeing a division crown, the club increased its chances of gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which would be huge. The Bears are tied with the New Orleans Saints for the second-best record in the NFC.

Game of firsts: Bears defensive tackle Matt Toeaina posted his first career sack in the opening quarter when he dropped Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick for a 7-yard loss. Vick threw his first interception of the season, a second-quarter pick in the end zone by safety Chris Harris, who returned it 39 yards. Vick had thrown 238 passes without an interception.

The pick also set up Jay Cutler's 6-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett with 38 seconds left in the half, leading to Chicago’s 21-13 lead at intermission.

Cutler uncorks arm: Cutler had completed only one pass for more than 30 yards heading into Sunday’s game, but he connected on three in the first three quarters.

If he’s on your fantasy team, we hope you started him because Cutler carved up Philadelphia’s blitz. Against five or more rushers, Cutler completed 8-of-10 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and 16.9 yards per attempt, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Cutler generated a passer rating of 152.1 against the Eagles’ five-man blitz.

Tommie Harris sighting: Defensive tackle Tommie Harris lost his starting job earlier in the season, and has logged just two starts all year. But he’s been quietly stringing together solid performances and could find himself back in the starting lineup at some point.

Harris averted a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter when he batted Vick’s pass intended for LeSean McCoy into the hands of Chris Harris, who picked off the pass in the end zone. Tommie Harris hasn’t started a game since Sept. 19 at Dallas.

Healthy Bears: Amazingly, the Bears came out of Sunday’s game injury free, which bodes well about the club’s chances. Chicago is arguably the NFL's healthiest team this late in the season.

In Week 12, what team goes without listing one player on its final injury report heading into the week’s games? Chicago did just that headed into the game against the Eagles. There’s a good chance the club’s injury report stays blank this week.

Sacking Vick: By the 4:18 mark of the fourth quarter, the Bears had managed to sack Vick four times. Israel Idonije and Henry Melton registered half sacks, and Toeaina, Julius Peppers and Anthony Adams generated one apiece.

Vick played well for the most part, hitting on a 30-yard touchdown to tight end Brent Celek with 1:48 left to make the score 31-26 after a David Akers extra point. Vick completed 29 of 44 for 333 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 94.2.

Big day by Forte: Matt Forte rushed 14 times for 117 yards against the Eagles, the best performance of the year by any running back against Philadelphia’s defense. Coming into the game, the Eagles were allowing an average of 73.8 yards rushing over their last six outings.

Forte has two 100-yard rushing performances on the season.

What’s next: The Bears, now on a four-game winning streak, travel to Detroit (2-9) to take on the struggling Lions, who lost to the Patriots on Thursday.

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears entered Sunday’s game tied for third in the NFL with 14 takeaways.

Yet the tables seemed to turn on the turnover-happy Bears, who suffered through six second-half giveaways -- including four Jay Cutler interceptions to DeAngelo Hall -- on the way to their second consecutive loss, a bumbling 17-14 effort against the Washington Redskins.

The defense did its part in forcing three Redskins turnovers, but the offense -- plagued by protection issues, a lack of production on the goal line and problems converting third downs -- proved too generous in giving away three interceptions and two fumbles.

Luckily for Chicago, it enters its bye before meeting Buffalo on Nov. 7 in Toronto. The club will need some time to bounce back from this one.

There’s quite a bit to get to from this game. So let’s not waste time.

What it means: It’s no secret the Bears’ schedule significantly stiffens after the bye week with matchups against Miami, Philadelphia, New England and the Jets over four of the next eight weeks. So after dropping back-to-back games against the Seahawks and Redskins, it’s safe to say the Bears squandered a golden opportunity to maintain their lead over the Packers in the NFC North, and made their potential road to the playoffs much more difficult.

Third-down disaster: Heading into the contest, Cutler had led the Bears to 0-for-22 on third-down conversions over his last eight quarters, and the struggles only continued against the Redskins.

The Bears went 0-for-6 on third-down conversions in the first half Sunday, before finally converting their first one with 4:32 left in the third quarter.

OL settles after rough start: Playing for the second consecutive week with a starting line comprised of Olin Kreutz, Chris Williams, Frank Omiyale, Edwin Williams and J’Marcus Webb, the Bears gave up three sacks in the first half -- two to Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo -- before finally settling down in the second half to give Cutler solid protection.

The Bears allowed only one more sack after the three-sack onslaught in the first half. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz played a role in club reducing sack numbers by shortening Cutler’s drops.

Briggs leaves: Linebacker Lance Briggs left the Sunday’s contest on Chicago’s third series, and the club announced he was questionable to return. At halftime, however, the team declared Briggs out for the game.

Still hobbled by a sprained ankle suffered Oct. 10 against the Panthers, Briggs missed last week’s loss to Seattle and alternated with backup Brian Iwuh early in Sunday’s game. The decision to pull Briggs in the first quarter may have been the smart move for the Bears, who enter their bye before meeting Buffalo in Toronto on Nov. 7. The week off should do some good for Briggs, who is considered one of the leaders on defense.

Moore robbed by delay of game: Bears nickel corner D.J. Moore watched a Redskins’ delay-of-game penalty wipe out what would have been his second touchdown of the day.

Having already returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown off Israel Idonije’s tipped pass in the first half, Moore picked off Donovan McNabb in the third quarter and skipped into the end zone for an 8-yard return. Prior to the snap on that play, however, officials flagged the Redskins for delay of game. The call wiped out what would have been Moore’s second career TD.

Goal-line struggles continue: The Bears entered the game 0-for-9 from an opponent’s 1-yard line. Make that 0-for-10, thanks to a Cutler fumble.

Trying to leap over the top on a sneak, Cutler jumped into the arms of Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, who halted the quarterback’s progress. As Cutler reached to put the ball across the plane, a Redskins defender knocked it out and London Fletcher recovered for the Redskins.

Turf a problem: Judging from some of the conversations in the team’s locker room Friday, the Bears anticipated problems with the turf at Soldier Field. In fact, several players made it a point to tell equipment managers to make sure they packed plenty of pairs of seven-stud cleats for the matchup with the Washington Redskins.

From the look of things, the Bears needed them. Several offensive and defensive players slipped on the turf that had been pelted by rain earlier in the day. As the game wore on, the turf dried up somewhat and footing improved. The Bears should expect more footing issues as the weather worsens over the next several weeks.

Shorter drops pay off: Martz called for a seven-step drop on a third-and-3 with 5:23 left in the first half. After Cutler threw incomplete to Greg Olsen on the play, Martz shortened up the quarterback’s drops, which helped tremendously.

After the failed conversion attempt, Martz called several three- and five-step drops on the club’s next series, which contributed to Cutler finishing the quarter 7-for-7, including a 9-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Knox with 31 seconds left that gave the Bears a 14-10 halftime lead.

Manning answers challenge: Bears coach Lovie Smith praised the play of Danieal Manning earlier in the week, but said he wanted the safety to make more plays in the passing game. Manning delivered in the third quarter on arguably the club’s most athletic interception of the season.

What’s next: Thankfully for the Bears, nothing. The club enters its bye week, which serves as a good opportunity for players such as offensive lineman Roberto Garza (knee), safety Major Wright (hamstring), and linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle) to regain their health prior to the team’s matchup with Buffalo on Nov. 7. The bye also comes at a good time for all the players dealing with nagging injuries.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Chicago fell from its undefeated perch in humiliating fashion Sunday. The supposed high-powered Bears offense short circuited against a dominating Giants defense that produced nine sacks in the first half on the way to a 17-3 New York win.

More concerning than the defeat was the nine-sack first half that put quarterback Jay Cutler out of the game with a concussion, and the fact the offensive line -- already depleted by injury -- lost another starter when right guard Lance Louis left the game with a left knee injury.

The severity of Louis' injury wasn't immediately known. But we’ll get into that and more in discussing this tough loss for the Bears, who played their second game in seven nights:

What it means: The Bears no longer own the designation of being the NFC’s lone remaining undefeated team. Still, the club at 3-1 leads the NFC North (by virtue of head-to-head win over Packers).

Offensive line health concerning: Don’t be surprised if the Bears make a move in the coming days to add depth along the offensive line. Left tackle Chris Williams (hamstring) missed Sunday’s game, leaving backups Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer at the tackle positions. Inside at guard, the situation looks just as bad.

Left guard Roberto Garza missed practice time throughout the week with a knee injury, which appeared to force him to miss some snaps against the Giants. Edwin Williams filled in for Louis when he left the game. Earlier in the night, Williams had filled in for Garza.

Rookie offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb could be a candidate for a possible move inside, but the Bears may also explore -- depending on the severity of Louis’ injury -- activating Johan Asiata off the practice squad. At one point in the offseason, Asiata was working the starters at guard.

Run defense penetrated: So much for the Bears’ tough run defense. Giants running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combined for 191 yards and a touchdown apiece on 29 attempts. Prior to Sunday’s contest, the Bears had allowed 119 through the first three games combined.

Active … but not really: Wide receiver Devin Aromashodu finally made the Bears' active 45-man roster, but it’s as if the Bears actually wasted the spot since they didn’t use him.

Cutler targeted Aromashodu 10 times in the opener. Then he played one snap during Week 2 in Dallas, before earning the sideline sweatsuit for the Bears' win over Green Bay. Aromashodu commented (unwisely) on his disappearance from the offense in the week leading up to Sunday night’s game, saying he didn’t know exactly what he did wrong to get on the staff’s bad side.

Some within the organization wonder whether the receiver is talking himself out of town.

“We don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves because when you’re walking on eggshells, you really can’t play well,” Aromashodu said last week. “You’ve still got to go out there, let it loose and do your best. You’re not going to be perfect every play.”

Aromashodu dropped a few passes in the opener and missed some downfield blocks. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz indicated that Aromashodu didn’t fully understand his assignments from the slot receiver spot, which is where the Bears planned to use the receiver. Besides that, Earl Bennett has performed well in that slot role the club originally envisioned for Aromashodu.

Although Aromashodu seems to have a good rapport with Cutler, the receiver could find a hard time getting back into Martz's good graces.

Lucky Lovie: Chicago escaped a possible 10-point deficit in the first quarter when the Giants squandered opportunities in the red zone on drives ending at the Bears’ 4 and the 20. Instead of scoring a touchdown on their second drive, the Giants settled for a 22-yard field goal on fourth-and-2 from the 4. Terrell Thomas intercepted Cutler on Chicago’s next possession, giving the Giants the ball at the Bears' 28. Four plays later, Lawrence Tynes missed a 38-yard field goal wide right.

Corner shuffle: The Bears benched starting left cornerback Zack Bowman last week against the Packers in favor of Tim Jennings. The club started Jennings against the Giants, only to pull him with 1:06 left in the opening quarter to insert Bowman.

The team shuffled the corners throughout the first half, but Bowman took most of the snaps and appears to have regained his starting job.

What’s next: The Bears travel to Carolina to face a winless Panthers squad that on Sunday nearly upset the New Orleans Saints on the road.

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