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O'HARA'S FRIDAY FOCUS: Lions start critical stretch against division foes

The path to the playoffs is one the Detroit Lions have walked before, and there should be no surprises or obstacles that cannot be overcome by a veteran team bidding to make the postseason for a second straight season and third time in the last four.

Familiarity breeds a lot of things, and one of them for the Lions should be some level of comfort – not to be confused with overconfidence – as they play their next two games in a compacted five-day span against old rivals in the NFC North.

It starts Sunday on the road against the Chicago Bears, with the Minnesota Vikings next up on Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field. 

The Lions have put themselves in playoff contention by winning the last two games to make their won-loss record 5-4. The powerful Vikings lead the North at 7-2.

With so much at stake there should be little chance that the Lions will get caught looking past the Bears, who are struggling in last place with a 3-6 record.

The race is on, and quarterback Matthew Stafford relishes being in it.

"It's a whole lot of fun," Stafford said. "It's a lot of fun playing division opponents late in the season. On the road – all that. I enjoy all that.

"To get up and prepare for the games when you've got all that riding on it. We're going to take this game just like every other one, but we know it's important because it's the next one."

Breakdown: The Lions' offense is coming together, with the offensive line intact for the first time this season and rookie receiver Kenny Golladay back to add a deep threat with his size and speed. However, the same problem exists on defense – lack of a consistent pass rush.

The Bears can keep it close if running back Jordan Howard has a big game and takes pressure off rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. If the Lions handle the Bears' running game and don't commit turnovers, they should win decisively. 

Prediction: Lions 23, Bears 9. It's set up for Ford Field to rock on Thanksgiving Day.


Series history:** The Lions have won seven of the last eight meetings, and three of the last four at Soldier Field. The Bears lead the series, 97-72 with six ties.

2016 split highlights: The Lions have bad memories of last year's two games. A 17-14 loss in Week 4 at Soldier Field was their third straight and dropped their won-loss record to 1-3.

The Lions had to rally for a 20-17 victory at Ford Field in Week 14, but it was costly. Matthew Stafford injured a finger on his right (passing) hand early in that game, and it affected his performance in the last three regular-season games and the playoff loss to Seattle.

Stafford had two interceptions in both games. The Bears returned one for a TD in the win at Ford Field.

Lions focus – intact offense, attack: For the first game this season, the Lions will have all the starters and top reserves available from their plan of how the offense was put together for this season.

T.J. Lang's return at right guard after missing the Cleveland game because of a concussion is the last piece of the puzzle to give the offense a full complement of starters. Last week against Cleveland, Taylor Decker made his first start at left tackle, and rookie receiver Kenny Golladay returned after missing five full games with a hamstring injury.

"We have a bunch of good players on this offense," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said this week. "When you have a full complement, that's good for the team. That good for the offense.

"When you have all your guys out there, you have a few more things you can do than when you don't. The more guys we have on the field who can impact the game with their particular strengths, the better."

The Lions' big-play capability was dazzling at times against the Browns. These were some of the big plays: 

Golladay had only two catches, but they went for gains of 14 and 50 yards on consecutive plays in a third-quarter possession that ended in a touchdown.

Running back Ameer Abdullah averaged 4.7 yards on 11 carries with a long run of 20 yards and an eight-yard TD run.

Running back Theo Riddick averaged 8.8 yards on four carries with a long run of 21 yards and an eight-yard TD catch.

Golden Tate averaged 16.2 yards on six catches and scored the clinching TD on a 40-yard run on a screen pass.

And tight end Eric Ebron scored the go-ahead TD on a 29-yard catch.

Bears focus – run with Howard: The old line that a running back is his quarterback's best friend is especially true when the quarterback is a rookie.

Jordan Howard would be any quarterback's best buddy, and he can take a lot of pressure of Bears rookie Mitchell Trubisky if the Lions don't do a better job of stopping the run than they did last week against the Browns.

The Browns used the running-back tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson to lead the way in shredding the Lions for 201 yards on the ground. Crowell had 90 yards and Johnson had 54. Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer inflated the total by adding 57 yards on a combination of called runs and scrambles. 

Numerous breakdowns in the run defense that led to the Browns' big rushing game must be corrected for the Lions to do a better job against Howard.

"Nine times out of 10, when you see a team run for a lot of yards, there are two common denominators," said Lions safety Glover Quin. "The fits weren't right, and missed tackles."

Johnson and Crowell are not in Howard's class as runners. The 224-pound Howard has power, speed and balance. He broke in as a rookie last year with 1,313 yards, and he's on the way to another good season with 716 yards in the first nine games.

He made his first pro start against the Lions in Game 4 last year and rushed for 111 yards in a 17-14 Bears win at Soldier Field.  Howard came back with 86 yards on 13 carries in the rematch in Game 13 – a game the Lions won, 20-17.

"He definitely has power – a big guy going downhill," Quin said. "He's fast enough to pick up yards, quick enough to make you miss and powerful enough to run you over.

"He's the real deal."

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