Nothing easy about this Bears season

DETROIT -- Of all the gifts the Detroit Lions have bestowed on the Chicago Bears this season -- and they have been plentiful -- this latest one, said Julius Peppers, ranks right up there.

It wasn't just the fact that the Lions couldn't sustain a consistent effort in the Bears' 24-20 victory Sunday, Peppers explained. It was that every one of these, um, battles, is just making the Bears better in the long run, he argued.

"We need these types of games to accomplish the goals we want to accomplish," the Bears defensive end said. "We need games like this where it's not easy. We had to grind it out, we had to work, and we had to fight. That's the main thing you learn from a game like this is to continue fighting and good things happen."

Or, in Sunday's case, the clock fortunately runs out and it's time to board the bus to the airport.

It is painfully obvious by now that this Bears season is not going to be easy. Not on prognosticators, not on fans, not on the Bears. The question is, whom it destroys first, and why at 9-3 we're still pondering this.

"We got our ninth win, we're in first place, we feel good about that," Bears coach Lovie Smith said after handing the Lions their 19th straight division defeat. "To win five games in a row is tough to do, so we'll just go back and get ready for our next opponent."

Surely, Smith can be encouraged by the growing impact each week of wide receiver Earl Bennett, who had seven catches for 104 yards Sunday. Smith can find comfort knowing that after a first-half showing by his defense befitting that of the Eastern Michigan Eagles, the Bears can still clamp down against a bad team and close out a game.

And he can, like everyone else in Bearsland, be thankful that his team has the upper hand on one of the wackier, more unpredictable NFL seasons in a long time.

The Bears are still ahead of the Packers and alone in first place in the NFC North, and at 9-3, sure appear to be a good bet for the playoffs, though even 10-6 might not be a lock this year. But can they survive once they get there with this recurring penchant for letdowns and uneven, self-destructive play?

It's tough to envision. Very tough.

Not when the offensive line gives up four sacks again. And not when you're watching a top-five defense inexplicably give up 8-yard chunks of Ford Field real estate to an offense led by its third-string quarterback, after looking the way it did against one of the NFL's best in the Philadelphia Eagles last week.

I was pondering this late in the first half when I blinked twice and nearly missed the Lions' two-play, 91-yard, 19-second drive to go into halftime leading 17-14.

Was he "upset" at that point, Smith was asked.

"Upset?" he said. "Yeah, you could say that. We weren't happy about what was happening. The message though was just to play the way we're capable of playing. I know they were doing some good things, but it's hard to stomach missed tackles and letting a team go over 90 yards in two plays. I was really thinking of stopping the clock and seeing if we could make them punt."

Instead, the defense flipped the switch without having to be told, the Bears said.

"We're an older defense; we just had to wake up," Israel Idonije said. "Even speaking personally, that first half, we had our heads in the clouds. It's just Detroit. We had to refocus, clear your head and that's what we did, and we came out in the second half much better."

A Jay Cutler fumble following a sack was recovered by the Lions on the Bears' 9-yard line on the second play of the third quarter and converted into a field goal, which was not what they had planned. But the Bears' offense responded in a way only it could, with a four-play, minus-5-yard "drive" in 2:49 to set up a 54-yard field goal by Robbie Gould that pulled Chicago to within 20-17.

How good is this team and how blessed is it?

The defense was good enough to hold the Lions to 49 total yards on offense in the second half after allowing 253 in the first. Good enough to stop the Lions on fourth-and-1 near midfield early in the fourth quarter. The Bears were also lucky enough to have the Lions decide to go for it, lucky enough that the Lions called a curious pass play.

And they were lucky enough on the next series that referee Ed Hochuli chose to call unnecessary roughness on Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for his hit on Cutler that gave the Bears a first-and-goal at the Detroit 7. On the next play, tight end Brandon Manumaleuna scored off a short pass from Cutler, and the Bears were ahead for good.

Cutler termed the run "courage or stupidity," and I would vote somewhere in between as he put himself in precarious positions on at least two runs in which he could have headed out of bounds or slid. Cutler said only that Suh hit him "from behind" and the Lions took the high road as well, but you have to think if it wasn't a quarterback and it wasn't Suh, that call wouldn't have been made.

And if it wasn't the Bears this season, this game wouldn't have been won. But it is and it was and for that, Peppers & Co. can only be grateful.

"When we win, it's not the way we'd like to sometimes, but it doesn't matter at this point," Brian Urlacher said.

"We won."

Where have we heard that before?

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.