MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S FRIDAY FOCUS: Lions, Bears and Packers all in the race for the NFC North title

Posted Nov 7, 2013

All three have 5-3 records in what promises to be an eight-week sprint to the finish

For pro football fans of any vintage or allegiance, the calendar, elements and standings intertwine to signal a time in the season when championships will be determined by the purest form competition.

A combination of old rivalries, fresh opportunities and renewed hopes make for a compelling backdrop as the Lions, Bears and Packers start the second half of the season shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder in the race to win the NFC North title.

All three have 5-3 records in what promises to be an eight-week sprint to the finish. The winner takes all – first place in the North, and home-field advantage to start the playoffs.

The Lions start the second half of the season against the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday. They can take a big step forward with a victory, while the Packers are hosting the Eagles at Lambeau Field.

The Lions already have one up on the Bears from a 40-32 win at Ford Field in Week 4. Winning Sunday would give the Lions a sweep of the season series and a significant edge in the tiebreaker formula should the two teams finish the season with the same record.

Tiebreaker formulas are well down the list on things that concern the Lions. This is the time of season in the northern tier of the NFL when colors change, days get shorter – and the stakes get higher.

"November and December is the best part of the season," said middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, one of the team captains. "You find out where you are as a team. You look at the records across the league, who has a chance to get that playoff spot.

"We’re in good position to do that, but like I’ve said, it’s one game at a time. It’s a whole new season. This is the second half of the season, and we’ve got to find a way to stack these wins up now.

"It’s any given Sunday. We’ve set ourselves up real nice to make a run at the playoffs. We’ve got a division game this week and a lot more ahead of us."

Winning solves all problems and answers all questions. Everything the Lions want to accomplish is in their own hands – the same as it is for the Bears and Packers. Only the Vikings, at 1-7, are out of the North race.

This year’s Lions aren’t like some others that fumbled away opportunities. They showed that in the last-minute rally that beat the Cowboys, 31-30, in the last game before their bye.

There is a maturity and resolve that puts them in good stead to make a serious playoff run. It starts Sunday.

I like the Lions to get out of the gate quickly in the race to win the North.

My prediction for Sunday: Lions 23, Bears 9.

Cutler will do it: Ndamukong Suh will get his wish to play against Bears QB Jay Cutler.

Cutler practiced Thursday and was declared the starter for Sunday by Coach Marc Trestman. Cutler went out early in a Game 6 loss to Washington with a severe groin injury and did not play in the 27-20 victory at Green Bay on Monday night.

Cutler’s status was in doubt until Thursday, when he was cleared by the team’s medical staff to play and went through practice. Josh McCown relieved Cutler against Washington and went the distance against Green Bay.

Suh and Cutler have had some good battles since Suh came to the Lions in 2010. Suh was the winner in the Lions’ 40-32 win over the Bears in Game 4 at Ford Field. He sacked Cutler and forced a fumble that was returned by Nick Fairley for a touchdown.

"I love playing against Cutler," Suh said this week. "He’s a tough guy. I want to beat the best no matter what every single week."

The first Chicago game was one of Suh’s best this year, and one of Cutler’s worst. Suh had two sacks, two tackles-for- loss, two quarterback hits and the forced fumble. Cutler threw two TD passes but had three interceptions in addition to the lost fumble.

Holding Forte: The Lions have to be fearful of Bears running back Matt Forte having one of his big games and big plays. He had a 53-yard TD run while gaining 95 yards on 14 carries in the first game.

Forte has four games of at least 100 yards rushing against the Lions. He had 151 yards receiving on opening day of 2010.

The 53-yard run was another in a long line of big plays he has broken. Previously, he had runs of 39, 40, 53 and 61 yards. In 2010 he had a TD catch that covered 89 yards.

Personnel: Both teams start rookies on the right side of the offensive line. The Bears have Kyle Long at guard and Jordan Mills at tackle. For the Lions, Larry Warford is at guard and LaAdrian Waddle at tackle.

The Bears are still without Lance Briggs, a seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton is on injured reserve with a knee injury.

On defense, the Lions are likely to be without starting right end Ziggy Ansah and nickel back Bill Bentley. Both have knee injuries sustained in the Dallas game.

Series history: The Bears have a 96-66 lead with five ties, and a 27-13 lead at Soldier Field.

Last meeting: In Game 4 at Ford Field, the Lions broke away from a 3-3 tie with 27 points in the second quarter for a 30-10 lead. It was 30-13 at halftime and 40-16 midway through the fourth quarter. Chicago scored two touchdowns in the last four minutes to make the final margin eight points.

Chicago had a 417-387 advantage in yards gained, but the Lions intercepted three passes off Bears QB Jay Cutler and returned a fumble for a TD.

The Lions’ defense held the Bears to one conversion in 13 attempts on third down. The Lions didn’t fare much better, converting 2-of-10 on third down.

Rankings

Bears: Offense – 13 rushing, 14 passing, 10 total. Defense – 29 rushing, 23 passing, 26 total.

Key stats: The Bears have 14 sacks but have given up only 12. They are tied for fourth with a turnover ratio of plus eight – 19 takeaways and 11 giveaways – but rank 29th in points allowed per game.

Lions: Offense – 21 rushing, 2 passing, 3 total. Defense – 14 rushing, 26 passing, 25 total.

Key stats: In the four games since they played the Bears, the Lions’ defense has a takeaway in only one game – a win over the Browns.

Stafford stat: In fourth-quarter passer rating, Matthew Stafford is No. 2 behind Peyton Manning with a rating of 120.9. Manning has seven TD passes and 3 interceptions and a rating of 122.3. Stafford has six TD passes and no picks.

Cutler stat: He ranks fourth with a fourth-quarter passer rating of 115.1. Cutler has six TD passes and two picks.