ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- This is essentially the situation the Detroit Lions wanted to be in before the season.
They are in contention for their first ever NFC North title and are certainly in a good position for a potential wild-card spot if that works out. But Sunday, against Chicago, is a huge barometer for the rest of the season.
And in some ways, the Lions understand that. A win Sunday puts them in no worse than a tie for first place with Green Bay, and if the Packers lose, first place would be solely Detroit’s for a week.
“Any time you play Chicago, it’s a big game,” Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Obviously you’re playing a division team, so it counts twice. It’s a game on the road for us. Tough environment, they are coming off a win against a division opponent.”
The Bears knocked off Green Bay last week, setting up this situation. So how can Detroit win?
Here are this week’s four keys.
The effectiveness of Jay Cutler: The Chicago quarterback, who has had major success against Detroit in his career, was cleared to play Thursday and could start Sunday against Detroit. Usually, this would be a bad thing for the Lions. However, perhaps this is a benefit for Detroit this time. If Cutler plays, he isn’t going to be at full strength, and the Detroit defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh, had its best game of the season against the Bears in September.
Suh said this week that he wanted to face Cutler because he wants to go against the best -- a message his teammates echoed throughout the week. Now, they’ll get it. Suh in particular has had success against the Bears in his career, having five sacks in seven games.
Keep the short/long game going: Detroit has been at its most effective when it has had a mostly healthy Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson on the field at the same time. The Johnson/Bush combination becomes a difficult matchup for teams who want to double Johnson or roll a safety his way on most plays. That leaves a softer front for Bush to deal with, either rushing the ball or with screens. With Lance Briggs also out, that could be even more of a problem for Chicago in dealing with Bush.
Find Joseph Fauria: The rookie tight end has been fairly quiet since his three touchdown performance against Cleveland last month, including not receiving a single target against Dallas two weeks ago. With the Bears likely focusing heavily on Johnson, and receiver Kris Durham likely more heavily noted on the scouting report, this could be a game where Fauria can finally have the breakout full-field performance he’s been looking for this season.
Don’t buy the hype: This is, no doubt, a big game for Detroit. If the Lions win on Sunday, it gives them a good position over the Bears in the overall playoff picture (both divisional race and wild card) since they would hold all tiebreakers against their rival. And Detroit has done well with breaking streaks this season, save the epically long losing streak in Green Bay.
Detroit hasn’t won in Chicago since 2007, also the last time the Lions swept the season series against the Bears. This season's Lions have the offensive capability to hang with any team in the league, except, maybe, Denver. But Detroit needs its defense to play more at the level it played against the Bears in the first meeting, instead of at other points this season when it has struggled because of a tendency to allow big pass plays.