Prime time to prove themselves
Bears' 'Monday Night' matchup with Lions their biggest game so far
CHICAGO -- As 4-1 starts go, the Chicago Bears' pre-bye success was mostly unmemorable. Fun, yes; dominating at times, like the second half in Jacksonville, absolutely.
But the most noteworthy game so far this season has been the worse-than-the-final-score drubbing in the road-to-the-Super Bowl-is-farther-than-it-appears loss to Green Bay at Lambeau Field.
That's not to devalue the early dominance of the defense or the impressive start by Brandon Marshall and, by proxy, general manager Phil Emery, who did what his predecessor could not: get Jay Cutler some help at receiver.
I'm not glossing over victories versus Indianapolis, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Dallas, either. All were important to the process. But the first five games were just the prologue. Now we're getting to the real story. This is how it should be.
With the Detroit Lions coming in for a nationally televised game, you have my permission to froth.
Am I contractually obligated to parrot the "Monday Night Football" line, "It all comes down to Monday night"? No, but it's true. (And I was told Jon Gruden would say, "THIS GUY knows good catchphrases.")
This has the trappings of The Game. Two teams that hate each other, archetypal NFC North defenses and the allure of history.
You have the let's-argue-unwinnable-argument narratives (Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall versus Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson), horse-race narratives (Can Detroit stick with Green Bay and Chicago in the North?) and made-for-argument narratives (Can Cutler dominate a good defense? Is Detroit too dirty to win?).
Forget that every-game-means-the-same jazz.
This is one of those contests that will look beautiful on TV with the stock shots of the skyline and downtown and the overhead cam of a packed Soldier Field. It's one of those games that makes the NFL the envy of every other league.
For the Bears, everything is positive going into the game, which is of course why I picked a slim Detroit victory. But I see the danger in underestimating Detroit, one of three teams with offense and defense ranked in the top 10 in yards per game.
If I were a Bears fan, I'd be hoping for Detroit to prove itself a top-10 team Monday night. The Bears have a legitimate Super Bowl team, and those teams have to go through a crucible.
As great as the defense has been, and Brian Urlacher and I agree it looks as good as or better than the Super Bowl defense of recent vintage, it has faced a rookie quarterback in Andrew Luck, a developing one in Sam Bradford, a Tony Romo and an "I hope you saved your signing bonus" Blaine Gabbert. The Bears had their share of success against Aaron Rodgers, holding him mostly in check back in Week 2.
With a decent running game (20th in NFL at 99.8 yards per game), Stafford is running the No. 2 passing game in the league (320), even as Johnson (35 catches, 558 yards) has only one touchdown. Stafford has been stellar in the fourth quarter, but he's also trailed in every fourth quarter, partly because of his own poor starts. The Bears have been victimizing quarterback mistakes all season.
The Bears have outscored opponents 65-25 in the fourth quarter, although if you take out the 28-0 fourth in Jacksonville, it's 37-25. Still, a 102-31 second-half scoring edge is pretty formidable.
The Lions' defense has had more success in bullying the Bears than dominating them. Remember Ndamukong Suh removing Cutler's helmet in the Bears' 37-13 home win over Detroit last November? That was the game in which players were docked $62,500 in fines. Even in the Lions' 24-13 win at Ford Field last season, Cutler tried to erase months of slander about his toughness. The Lions didn't tame him, and the ensuing win only validated the importance of that game.
Coming in off two pretty good performances, Cutler could use a statement game against a decent opponent, and this is the time to do it -- with a big audience and the chance to douse his flammable image. As much as I enjoy the jokes and memes, and I don't feel an ounce of sympathy for him, I'd love to see Cutler judged only on his performance, good or bad. That's fair.
Cutler bristled at personality questions this week, but he wasn't about to pick a fight with Detroit. You can say what you want about his mien and his mean, but he's not dumb. You just know Suh & Co. would love to plaster a scowl on his face.
"They're a tough defense, they play hard," Cutler said. "They tackle hard, they rush the passer hard. They do everything full speed, so it's a challenge. With anybody in our division, we're not going to like them, and they're not going to like us."
Most Bears and Lions followed that train of thought. There will be enough rancor on the field. Not much to really say. But both teams obviously think they're the deserving party. Detroit isn't at Chicago's level right now, but a win could even the playing field. The Bears aren't satisfied pushing around the Jacksonvilles of the world.
"We owed them something in the second one," Kellen Davis said of last year's home win. "I think that's kind of the pace that it's going to be this year for the next two. I'm kind of looking forward to getting out there and mixing it up."
So are we, Kellen.