Heading into the last week of the season, the Bears find themselves in a difficult position. A win and they still may not make the playoffs. A loss and a regime change may be coming.
But one thing is certain: The Bears need to win this game to have any chance of making the playoffs.
The Lions have lost seven straight games, and at 4-11, they may be heading for a coaching change of their own. Detroit has taken a mighty fall from last year's 10-win playoff team.
Of course, Chicago has more incentive to win, but the flip side to that means it faces more pressure. The Lions would love to beat the Bears, dashing Chicago's playoff hopes while going out feeling a tiny bit better about themselves.
So let's get to the keys to the game.
1. The Offense Must Step Up—Are You Listening Alshon Jeffery?
Chicago's offense has been awful this season, and while the defense has helped it overcome this for much of the season, especially against mediocre teams, it will be tougher to win at Detroit than it was against a Cardinals offense that is even worse than the Bears.
Matt Forte will be a key to this game, as the Bears will need a balanced attack on offense. He hurt his right ankle on Sunday, the third time this year he has done that. But he was very effective when he did play, although the Cardinals are bad against the run.
With Michael Bush on IR and Kahlil Bell not showing much, the Bears don't want to have to rely on Armando Allen for the bulk of the carries on Sunday.
Interestingly, both teams are averaging almost exactly the same average amount of points per game (only one point separates them over 15 games). Yet the Lions have almost 1,700 more yards of offense. In fact, they rank second in the NFC in yards per game and first in passing yardage.
So Detroit will move the ball, and it will be up to the Bears to stop the Lions. One way is to keep them off the field by having the Bears offense get first downs.
It would be helpful if Alshon Jeffery could get going. After being flagged three times for offensive pass interference, Jeffery followed that up by catching only one ball on Sunday, while dropping another catchable pass.
Teams know that Jay Cutler is going to target Brandon Marshall, so Jeffery must be a key alternative weapon for Cutler on Sunday, especially considering that Devin Hester hasn't caught a pass in three of the last four games.
2. How Is Jay Cutler Feeling?
Cutler started last Sunday's game 1-of-11 and just was not sharp all afternoon. Part of that could be related to his neck, which is still stiff at times and probably is affecting his accuracy and strength.
Cutler also has a bad knee, and while most NFL players are nursing injuries this late in the season, the game could boil down to how Cutler is feeling. At least he didn't throw an interception for just the fifth time all year.
Assuming another week's rest helps, Cutler should be better this Sunday against the Lions. However, if the pass rush gets to him, Lovie must not be afraid to pull the trigger and give Jason Campbell a try. He can always put Cutler back in later if Campbell can't get it done.
3. Charles Tillman vs Calvin Johnson
Tillman usually plays "Megatron" as well as any cornerback in the league, but he will need to continue that effective play to hold down Detroit's offense.
Just like how Chicago's offense is tied to one player—Brandon Marshall—the Lions offense depends mightily on Johnson.
Johnson set a single-season receiving yards record this week with 1,892 yards, but the Bears held him to his worst game of the season back in October, with three catches for 34 yards.
However, he has eight consecutive weeks with 100 or more yards receiving. He will have added incentive to reach 2,000 yards for the season in Sunday's game.
Tillman will need to be extra effective on Sunday, since he may not have as much safety help over the top, with Chris Conte uncertain following a hamstring injury.
Fortunately, he is playing as well as he has all year. Tillman had his third interception TD vs. the Cardinals, and he owns the Bears franchise record.
4. Lions Turnover-Prone Offense vs Bears Opportunistic Defense
As the stats above suggest, the Lions move the ball but don't score, meaning they fail in the red zone and are prone to turning the ball over. Of course, that's where the Bears defense excels.
Takeaways will be key to this game, as it usually is for the Bears. The Bears lead the NFC with 40 takeaways, while the Lions rank 15th in turnover differential.
Only Arizona (32) and Philadelphia (36) have turned the ball over more than Detroit (29) in the NFC. The Bears simply must capitalize on this if they are going to win.
5. Status of Injured Players
Besides Cutler and Forte, the Bears are hoping to get Brian Urlacher back on Sunday. At least that's what Lovie Smith is saying. That could be a huge emotional lift for Chicago.
The status of Henry Melton remains cloudy, but he has had a solid season, so his interior pass rush would be much appreciated against Matthew Stafford.
Jonathan Scott is another injured player the Bears are hoping will return.
Julius Peppers looked healthier than he has in awhile last Sunday, so that may be a bonus for the Bears. He had three sacks and a forced fumble against the Cardinals, and while Arizona is weak, Peppers has looked better over his past three outings.
I had begun thinking that Peppers may be slowing down, but according to Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com, Peppers had plantar fasciitis so perhaps he is feeling better.
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