Bears vs. unbeaten Lions: The Great Unknown

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DETROIT — Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, making a leaping catch in the end zone to beat the Dallas Cowboys last week.

What it doesn’t show is Johnson using both hands to secure the ball as he he fell hard on his back with the Cowboys’ Terrance Newman defending him to complete the ”process of the catch” and all but clinch the come-from-behind victory.

The Lions have learned from their mistakes since Jim Schwartz took over as their head coach in 2009. And a lot of those hard lessons have fueled their sudden turnaround from perennial NFL patsy to NFC contender.

”We’re excited about playing this week and we realize the magnitude of this game,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. ”I didn’t have to give them a George Halas speech to get them going [this week]. I think all that’s in pretty good shape.”

The challenge for the Bears (2-2) against the Lions (4-0) at Ford Field tonight is raising their game to the appropriate level. Sometimes you prepare to take down an upstart on an early season roll, only to find you’re up against a team of destiny.

The Lions could be either one. After losing 47 of 52 games from 2007 through 12 games of last season, they’ve won eight consecutive games. After losing an NFL-record 26 consecutive road games they’ve won five in a row.

With their victory over the Cowboys last week, they became the first team in NFL history to overcome deficits of 20 or more points to win in back-to-back games.

The comeback over the Cowboys was sparked by three second-half interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns on back-to-back drives. And it wasn’t like it was Mike Lucci, Jack Christiansen and Lem Barney making the big plays, either.

Reserve linebacker Bobby Carpenter’s 34-yard return for a TD was the first interception of his career. Chris Houston, who returned a Romo pick 56 yards for a touchdown, had four interceptions in 59 NFL games coming into this season. He has three in four games in 2011. And Stephen Tullock, who had the third interception, had two picks in his previous 83 NFL games.

They’re not doing it with mirrors. The Lions have 11 takeaways in four games, which led the NFL going into Week 5. They’ve returned four interceptions for touchdowns in their last six regular-season games. Their defensive line has 46 sacks in the Lions’ last 20 games.

The excitement in Detroit is a long time coming for a hearty Midwestern fandom that endured a drought of epic proportions under CEO Matt Millen (2001-08) that rivaled the Bulls demise under Jerry Krause in the post-Jordan era. The Lions last playoff appearance was in 1999, and that team was 8-8. Their last 10-win season was in 1995. In retrospect, the often-underappreciated Wayne Fontes should be revered in this town like Mike Ditka is in Chicago — the Lions went to the playoffs four times in a five-year span (1991-95) with Fontes as the head coach. It’s been so long since the Lions were a factor, it’s hard to imagine the excitement Detroit is feeling today. But Roy Williams, who played for the Lions in his first four-plus seasons in the NFL, remembers.

”We were sky high, we were 6-2 [in 2007],” said Williams, the seventh overall pick by the Lions in the 2004 draft ”We finished 7-9, but we started out 6-2, it was pretty good. The fans were excited. So I know they’re very excited right now at 4-0. I don’t know the last time that’s happened. I think one reporter told me the Billy Sims era, that was a long time ago.

So I know the fans are excited. They truly deserve it. No offense to the Bears or Cowboys fans, but those fans are the most loyal fans that I’ve seen going through everything they went through, but still show up at the games and cheer for their team. I think they’re very well deserving.”

The 1-7 finish in 2007 was the start of the 5-57 stretch that ended after the Bears rallied to beat the Lions 24-20 at Ford Field last December. They’ve won eight consecutive games since then. And have a ton of momentum coming into Monday night’s game.

Then again, the four teams the Lions have beaten are a combined 8-11 this season — the Buccaneers (3-2), Chiefs (2-3), Vikings (1-4) and Cowboys (2-2). And three of those teams haven’t beaten anybody either (the Bucs, Chiefs and Vikings’ six victories are over teams with a combined record of 5-25). So the Lions have beaten only one team (the Cowboys) that has beaten a winning team.

That’s why Lions fans are understandably skeptical about tonight’s game. The Bears will go a long way toward determining whether their fears are well-founded.

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