Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 11/11/11
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The playoffs dont begin for two months, but an eight-week race to make the postseason is beginning and the Lions are in the lead pack. As the Lions start the second half of the season against the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, linebacker Justin Durant almost feels like hes playing in the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. There arent any knockout games this early, but the field of realistic contenders will get smaller by the week. Its sort of like the 64 teams that get started, said Durant, who was a vital addition to the defense this season. Every week, somebody is basically eliminated. We want to get started right. The Lions started the season right, winning the opener at Tampa Bay on the way to a 6-2 record going into last weeks bye. The Bears won at Philadelphia on Monday night to make their record 5-3 with a three-game winning streak. Realistically, the Bears and Lions are competing for one of two wild-card spots in the NFC. They trail the Packers (8-0) in the NFC North. Sundays game is one of six the Lions will play against teams that were .500 or better after the first half of the season. In addition to the Bears, the Lions play the Packers twice and the Saints (6-3), Chargers (4-4) and Raiders (4-4) once each. The Panthers and Vikings are the only teams left on the Lions schedule who are below .500. Both are 2-6. In the race for a wild card, the Lions have the best record of any NFC team that is not leading their division. Behind them among the wild-card contenders are the Falcons and Bears at 5-3, and the Cowboys and Bucs at 4-4. Every play of every game will be magnified from now until the Lions end the regular season at Green Bay on Jan. 1. The Lions got an edge on the Bears by beating them in the first game at Ford Field on Oct. 10. The Bears are favored by 3 points to make the season series 1-1. My pick for Sunday: the Lions make a few more good plays than the Bears and win, 20-17. Following is the Lions-Bears FOX Sports Detroit Breakdown: Lions' spotlight -- Front Four: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was in the news often in the first half of the season. He has to start the second half by leading the defensive lines charge into the Bears backfield. The Lions are fourth in the league with 24 sacks, and they got to Cutler three times in a 24-13 victory over the Bears at Ford Field on Oct. 10. Chicago has tightened its pass protection since allowing 11 sacks in the first two games. Cutler has been sacked 10 times in the last six games. They havent really changed personnel, Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. Theyre protecting. Suh hasnt been as effective on the pass rush as last season, when he had 6.5 sacks in the first eight games and finished with 10 for the season. The Lions have been getting pressure from their defensive ends. Starters Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch both have five sacks. The two guys on the edge create a lot of problems, Cutler said of Avril and Vanden Bosch. You cant just concentrate on one side because they have a dual threat there. It makes it hard. There isnt much of a drop-off when Vanden Bosch and Avril are out. Lawrence Jackson has 3.5 sacks, and Willie Young has two. Bears' spotlight -- QB Jay Cutler: Cutler has been able to stand and deliver in a three-game winning streak that has put the Bears back in the NFC playoff race. Cutler has been sacked only three times in victories over the Vikings, Buccaneers and Eagles. In those three games, Cutler has completed 56 of 95 passes with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Even on the occasions when hes gotten pressure, Cutler has been able to avoid the rush and get passes off with a variety of delivers. He is probably more effective throwing off balance and from different arm angles than any quarterback in the league. Hes a great leader -- somebody whos taken a lot of hits early in the season, Lions cornerback Eric Wright said. Its hard to defend him, for whatever reason. Hes a winner. Through a game, he takes a beating, as far as being sacked and hit. In the first meeting against the Lions this season, Cutler completed 28 of 38 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown. He did not have an interception. Key matchup -- Lions vs. RB Matt Forte: Bears management is either stupid, cheap or holding out for the best deal possible in its refusal to negotiate the lucrative long-term contract that Forte wants. He's the NFLs best dual-threat back. He runs routes down the field better than any back. Forte is second in the NFL in rushing with 805 yards and first with 1,241 yards from scrimmage. The Lions did a good job against Forte in their first game, but he still ran for 116 yards and caught four passes for 35. In the Bears win at Philadelphia Monday night, Forte rushed for 133 yards and had had had catches for 17 yards. We did a good job the first game limiting his screens, Schwartz said. But hes made a lot of plays this year on screens and also lobs down the field in addition to his run game. Stats: Bears' rankings: Offense -- 11 rushing, 18 passing, 17 total. Defense -- 11 rushing, 26 passing, 23 total. Lions' rankings: Offense -- 27 rushing, 10 passing, 13 total. Defense -- 28 rushing, 6 passing, 10 total.
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