After their win against the Chicago Bears in Week 10, the Detroit Lions felt good about their playoff chances, as they sat atop the NFC North standings with a one-game lead over both the Bears and the Green Bay Packers.
Can the Bears overtake the Lions in the NFC North?
In Week 11, the Lions looked to maintain that divisional lead against the 3-6 Pittsburgh Steelers. But, despite being ahead going into the fourth quarter, the Lions surrendered two touchdowns to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers and left Heinz Field with a 6-4 record.
While the Lions were losing in Pittsburgh, the Bears were enduring a lengthy weather-related delay before topping the Baltimore Ravens in overtime on a 38-yard field goal from Robbie Gould.
As it now stands, heading into Week 12, the Bears and Lions are tied atop the division, but the Lions do hold the tiebreaker. Both teams have similar schedules in that each is to play only one team currently above .500.
|Detroit Lions||Chicago Bears|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-8)||St. Louis Rams (4-6)|
|Green Bay Packers (5-5)||Minnesota Vikings (2-6)|
|Philadelphia Eagles (6-5)||Dallas Cowboys (5-5)|
|Baltimore Ravens (4-6)||Cleveland Browns (4-6)|
|New York Giants (4-6)||Philadelphia Eagles (6-4)|
|Minnesota Vikings (2-6)||Green Bay Packers (5-5)|
With four of their final six games on the road, the Bears will need to rely heavily on their star players if they want to overtake the Lions for the NFC North crown.
One key to Chicago overtaking the Lions will be the continued improvement of its defense. In their last three games, the Bears have held opponents to just over 20 points per game after allowing an average of 28.8 points in the first seven contests.
Injuries have decimated the Bears on both sides of the ball but especially on defense. Linebacker Lance Briggs was expected to miss at least six weeks with a shoulder injury he suffered on Oct. 20, according to ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson. If that timetable stays true, Briggs could conceivably return for the Bears' Monday Night Football matchup with the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 9.
Rookie Khaseem Greene has filled in admirably for Briggs at the weak-side linebacker position. Fellow rookie Jon Bostic has done the same in replacing the injured D.J. Williams at the middle linebacker position. Every rep taken by Greene and Bostic has made each better on the field and will only help the defense get stronger in the important final weeks of the season.
Injuries to Henry Melton and Nate Collins forced the Bears to make changes at the defensive tackle position, so they signed former Dallas Cowboy Jeremiah Ratliff in early November with the hope that he will contribute once he's fully recovered from groin surgery.
Ratliff told Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com: "I'm thankful and I'm loving it. I'm loving every minute of it. It's a great organization, great teammates and a great organization historically. I'm just looking forward to getting on the field and producing."
The Bears are going to need Ratliff on the field as soon as possible to help shore up the struggling interior of their defensive line.
Even more important than getting Briggs and Ratliff back healthy, is the need to get a sidelined Jay Cutler back under center. The Bears will need their starting quarterback if they are to take control of the division.
While backup signal-caller Josh McCown has certainly been impressive in relief over the last two-plus games, it is evident that Cutler's skill set can help the Bears offense, and his big arm may come in handy as the weather gets more challenging.
According to the Chicago Tribune's Fred Mitchell, McCown has been adamant about his role on the team:
I am the backup quarterback on this team. And the way to serve my team is to play when the starter's not healthy. Jay's our starting quarterback, no doubt about that. So for me it is just serve our team in my role. And that's all I want to do. Hopefully, whenever Jay's healthy, we're still in position to get everything we want to get accomplished done when he takes back over.
A healthy Jay Cutler combined with a Bears offensive line that has protected the quarterback well and a slew of weapons at the other skill positions—Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte—make for an explosive offense.
If the Bears want to keep pace and overtake the Lions in the NFC North, they will need to rely on their improving defense and an offense that can score with anyone—including Detroit, a team that has yet to show it can win when it is all on the line.