Monday Night Football heads to the NFC North this week for a renewal of the division rivalry between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. For a rarity, the best players on the Soldier Field grass might be at the wide receiver positions, where Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson have been among the NFL’s best in 2012.
The passing attacks, however, only tell part of the story in this showdown, whose outcome will rest on these three key questions:
1. Can even the red-hot Bears defense contain Matthew Stafford?
With four defensive touchdowns in the last two games, Chicago is on a roll even by the high standards of a Bears defense. That said, they have yet to face a passing game as dialed-in as Matthew Stafford and Detroit’s.
The Lions rank second in the league with nearly 320 yards per game through the air, led—as usual—by the incomparable Johnson (35 catches for 558 yards). The Bears are no strangers to this matchup, but knowing how to slow down Detroit's offense and actually executing the plan are two very different problems.
2. Does Detroit have an answer for Matt Forte and Michael Bush?
As well as Marshall has played in his first season as a Bear, the key to Chicago’s offense has been the ground attack. Newcomer Michael Bush has paired with Matt Forte to give the Bears the 10th-best ground game in the league, and the duo helped Chicago pile up 214 rushing yards in their Week 5 demolition of Jacksonville.
The Lions’ run defense ranks 10th in the NFL, but big games from stars such as Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson have played key roles in Detroit losses. With middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch banged up, the pressure will be on the defensive line—led by mercurial star Ndamukong Suh—to make plays in the backfield.
3. Will the Lions be able to put together any kind of ground game?
Detroit rookie (and Champaign, IL native) Mikel Leshoure will have plenty of fans in the Soldier Field stands on Monday night. Whether he’ll have the slightest bit of running room to impress them with is another question entirely.
Leshoure has been merely competent in three games since returning from suspension, rushing for 196 yards and one touchdown. He’ll need to be a lot better than competent to make a dent in Chicago’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense, and if Leshoure can’t get his feet under him, he’ll open the door for the Bears’ pass rush to tee off on Stafford.
Prediction: Chicago 21, Detroit 17
The nonexistent Detroit ground game will put enough pressure on Stafford that even he won’t be able to avoid a turnover or two. Chicago’s offense isn’t going to run up the score as it’s been doing (with the defense’s help) in recent games, but against an unremarkable pass rush, Jay Cutler will produce enough points to win.842561