CHICAGO -- It's late and I'm loopy, so let's play a silly little game just for the heck of it. If the NFL season ended Monday night, three NFC North teams would be playoff bound. The fourth would own a top-10 draft choice.
Commissioner Roger Goodell would never call off a season after seven weeks, of course. (Think of all the lost ticket revenue!) We're not even at the season's midpoint, but already, I think, we're beginning to see some clarity in this division. The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings have each put themselves in position for the division title, while the Detroit Lions are on the brink of 2012 extinction.
That's right. After a 13-7 defeat of the Lions in a game that wasn't that close, the Bears have the second-best record (5-1) in the NFC. According to the updated standings, the Vikings (5-2) rank fifth and the Packers (4-3) sixth in the conference. The Lions, on the other hand, have more losses at 2-4 than 24 of the NFL's 32 teams.
I realize there is more football left to be played this season than has been played. But this is the time of year when patterns emerge and stories start getting written, and Monday night we saw the Bears emerge from their bye as sharp as they entered it. They forced four turnovers, three in the red zone, and were 30 seconds away from their first shutout in three years. And the Lions looked no different than the team that has won this season only when mounting a fourth-quarter comeback.
"This was two evenly matched teams," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said afterward. "When you're playing a good team like Chicago, one that's leading the NFC North, we're on the road, we're not going to win the way we played."
To be clear, the Lions had a chance to steal this game largely because the Bears' offense slowed considerably after quarterback Jay Cutler suffered bruised ribs late in the second quarter. But there was never a time when I thought the Lions were matching the Bears blow for blow, as evenly matched teams do.
Evidence? Bears cornerback Charles Tillman did the impossible, matching up all night with Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and limiting him to three catches on the 11 passes he was targeted on. The Bears surprised the Lions by blitzing more often than usual, on 28.8 percent of Matthew Stafford's dropbacks, according to ESPN's Stats and Information. And the Bears' two-deep safety look didn't give up a pass longer than 23 yards.
The Lions, in fact, absorbed most of the blows Monday. Bears defenders stripped the ball from running backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell in the red zone. And in a sequence that defined the current situations for both teams, the Bears fought off the Lions at their most vulnerable moment.
It began when Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sacked Cutler violently but legally -- and cleanly, according to all involved -- with 4 minutes, 52 seconds left in the second quarter.
Cutler missed five plays while getting the injury attended to. (Asked if he received a pain-killing injection at halftime, Cutler said: "We did some stuff back here in the back room.") When he returned to open the third quarter, it was clear Cutler couldn't step into and drive his throws. He was short to tight end Kyle Adams on second down and managed a pair of 2-yard passes to tailback Matt Forte before the Bears punted.
"It was on my right side," Cutler said. "I couldn't really follow through. Couldn't get through the ball. It had an impact on our play calling, but defense was playing so well, we thought we could ride it out a little."
Still, at that moment -- with Cutler debilitated and the Lions' defense seemingly energized -- you could sense the potential for a turning point. But the Lions' Stefan Logan muffed the ensuing punt, and three minutes later the Bears took a 13-0 lead that stood until the final seconds of the game.
Schwartz kept it positive afterward, saying: "We can battle back. We've battled back in games, we can do it in the season." But the Lions now have six very similar games on their resume -- slow starts, special teams miscues and last-second dashes -- that suggest they have some fundamental issues they might not be equipped to address immediately.
"If I had all the answers," Stafford said, "it would be nice."
If the Lions seem stuck in a rut, the Bears appear as well-rounded and disciplined as they've ever been under coach Lovie Smith. Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs are having All-Pro seasons, and Monday they had reason to rally around their quarterback for positive reasons.
You might not realize it, but the Bears are 10-1 in Cutler's past 11 starts dating back to last season. While there was never a (rational) reason to doubt his toughness, Monday night felt like the moment when he earned his stripes in Chicago.
"That's what you should have as your Chicago Bear quarterback," Smith said. "And he does it time after time."
Put it all together, and the Bears are in their best-case scenario after six games. The Vikings and Packers aren't far behind. The Lions are on the short end of things. But no division is perfect, right?