The Detroit Lions marched into Soldier Field and beat the NFC North rival Chicago Bears, 21-19, on Sunday in Week 10 to move into sole possession of the division lead.
Quarterback Jay Cutler returned for the Bears after missing just one game with a torn groin muscle and started off very well. Cutler found his favorite target, Brandon Marshall, connecting on three passes for 61 yards and a 32-yard touchdown strike on the opening drive to put Chicago up, 7-0.
Jay Cutler looked pretty healthy leading an opening TD drive. Moved well in the pocket.— The MMQB (@theMMQB) November 10, 2013
Detroit immediately responded with a magnificent scoring drive of its own, going 85 yards in 12 plays. Matthew Stafford capped it off by hitting Kris Durham with a five-yard touchdown pass to knot the score in the first quarter.
It looked as though this contest could turn into a shootout, as was expected, but it wasn't to be.
Prolonged stagnancy for each offense followed until Cutler and Co. mounted a rally in the last two minutes of the first half. Second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery was carving up Detroit's lackluster secondary, converting three third downs on the drive:
Bears picked up 3rd-8, 3rd-8 and 3rd-7 on this drive, all on same slant pass to Jeffrey.— Chris McCosky (@cmccosky) November 10, 2013
However, after the Bears reached the red zone, a touchdown bid was thwarted when Ndamukong Suh got his hand on Cutler's pass, which Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy intercepted.
That marked Levy's fifth interception of the season.
It seemed that Cutler struggled with his agility and ability to step up in the pocket throughout the game due to his ailing groin, but his toughness kept him on the field.
The Bears' inability to establish a rushing attack hurt them most, as stud running back Matt Forte managed only 33 yards on 17 carries.
That was in stark contrast to Lions counterpart Reggie Bush, who scampered for over 100 yards, including a 39-yard burst that set up Stafford's four-yard TD throw to superstar receiver Calvin Johnson.
Calvin Johnson on the goal line fade. That's trouble for any CB.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 10, 2013
The five-play, 66-yard scoring drive to open the second half put the Lions in prime position to pull off the win on the road.
Near the beginning of the fourth quarter, though, the Bears were granted a golden opportunity to take the lead.
A Stafford third-down pass intended for Johnson sailed and was intercepted by Bears safety Chris Conte, who returned the ball to the red zone. Forte ran it in on the next play, but it was called back due to a holding penalty.
Jeffery hauled in an apparent touchdown in double coverage a few plays later, but it was determined that he did not maintain control of the ball as he went to the ground.
Those two calls fittingly sum up how the Bears' day went.
Chicago had to settle for three points, which proved to be costly. Even after the Lions missed a field goal on a promising fourth-quarter drive, Cutler could not manage better than a three-and-out when taking over with 6:20 left.
Jay Cutler just one-hopped a 3rd down pass to Alshon Jeffery, who appeared to be open. #Bears— Sean Jensen (@seankjensen) November 10, 2013
That led to a back-breaking drive, highlighted by Bush's taxing running and a second paydirt hookup between Stafford and Johnson from 14 yards out.
It was a similar play design to the previous score—where Johnson used his size and the boundary on the fade to shield the defender:
Easy throw and catch for Calvin Johnson on fade there— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) November 10, 2013
For the last drive of the game, backup Bears QB Josh McCown came out in an attempt to mount a comeback after Cutler's issues were compounded by an ankle injury.
McCown converted a 4th-and-1 to Marshall to keep the Bears' final drive alive, then hit Jeffery with a pass to get Chicago down to the Lions' 15-yard line. A few plays later, McCown found Marshall when the play broke down for an 11-yard TD to cut the lead to 21-19.
Josh McCown magic!!!— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) November 10, 2013
Controversy ensued when McCown threw an incomplete pass on the two-point conversion, and Willie Young was called for a blow to the quarterback's helmet.
Bears down 2, Josh McCown throws the 2-pointer out of the end zone ... Willie Young called for a blow to McCown's head.— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) November 10, 2013
Forte tried to punch it in from one yard out, but Nick Fairley was there to stuff the attempt.
Here is a look at some grades for the game's top performers.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions: A
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It's a rather safe bet that Johnson has a chance to come away with the football no matter who is on him, and on the two most important opportunities he had, the receiver took full advantage in finding the end zone.
Imagining where the Lions offense would be without Johnson is difficult. He continues to perform at a high level, fortifying the notion that he is the best receiver in the NFL.
Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears: B-
Whether it was the adrenaline wearing off or whatever the case may have been, Cutler was not the same after he threw his only interception of the game.
Cutler can't be questioned for his toughness any longer, because he stood his ground amid heavy pressure throughout the afternoon.
In the end, though, he completed just 21-of-40 passes for 250 yards and a score to match that pick, and missed some throws late. Hopefully, his ankle injury isn't too serious to the point where he is sidelined for even longer.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions: A
A big reason why Forte was unable to get going on the ground was because Suh was a beast, clogging up the trenches and requiring constant blocking.
Suh tipped the key throw at the end of the first half to completely shift the momentum of the game, which the Lions offense ran with as they came out of the locker room and put a touchdown on the board.
Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears: A+
Yet again, Marshall formed a dynamic duo with Cutler, hauling in seven receptions for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
However, Marshall's two biggest catches came from McCown on the final drive and put the Bears in position to force overtime. That type of viability late in the game shows why Marshall is among the game's elite receivers.
Despite his efforts and those of fellow big-target wideout Jeffery, it wasn't quite enough to topple Detroit.
The Lions are atop the North and attempting to win their first division crown since 1993 as they prepare to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in Week 11.
Cutler's health has to be a concern for Chicago as it tries to rebound from this disappointing defeat in a battle with the Baltimore Ravens at home next Sunday.