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Lions take advantage of rivals' injury woes to grab control of NFC North

Calvin Johnson's two touchdowns helped the Lions edge the Bears 21-19. Calvin Johnson's two touchdowns helped the Lions edge the Bears 21-19. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

The Packers lost Sunday with their third-string quarterback under center, and the Bears had to make a QB switch late because their starter was ailing.

But you might have to forgive the Lions if they are not feeling too sorry for their division rivals. After all, Detroit has not won a division title in 20 years and has not been in first place this late in the season since before the NFC Central was rebranded as the NFC North in 2002. So, a 21-19 victory over Chicago was a welcome sight, no matter how it came about.

"We weren’t the best on offense, but we didn’t have to be," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "We just have to score one more point than the opponent."

Throughout the second half, the Lions appeared as if they might be headed toward an all-too-familiar late collapse. Even after Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson connected for their second TD of the game to put Detroit up eight with two minutes left, the Lions nearly came unglued. Nick Fairley coughed up a personal foul early on Chicago's ensuing drive, then a roughing the passer call later gifted the Bears a second chance at a game-tying two-point conversion.

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The Lions, though, sidestepped their own landmines, with Nick Fairley stuffing Matt Forte on that deciding two-point try. Combined with their thrilling Week 8 comeback win over the Cowboys, the Lions are hitting back against their reputation for letdowns, one outing at a time.

"Guys are happy in there," Stafford said, "but we’re not satisfied."

Believe it or not, Detroit has to be considered the NFC North favorites now. Its win Sunday plus a Packers' loss to the Eagles means that the Lions hold a one-game lead in the division; they also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker vs. Chicago, courtesy of a season sweep.

With Cutler hobbling and Aaron Rodgers out, plenty of folks pegged Detroit for just such an edge heading into this week. At least in the quarterback department, the Lions had a huge edge in health -- and Stafford, despite an up-and-down day that included a costly interception, took advantage of his opportunity late.

The Lions now have just one game left against a team currently with a winning record: Thanksgiving Day against a Packers team likely to still be down Rodgers. This is uncharted territory, to be sure, but Detroit could be in position to put its foot down in the division by the time that holiday showdown rolls around.

Chicago will spend the next few days figuring out if Cutler or Josh McCown should start against Baltimore in Week 11. The Packers have abundant problems of their own, despite a game effort from QB Scott Tolzien Sunday, in his first regular-season NFL appearance. No matter which QBs the Bears and Packers opt to go with, it's clear they both need to start winning games to keep the Lions within reach. Waiting on the Lions to unravel, as they have in years past, may not be an option anymore.

Cutler's injury -- and the Bears' questionable decision to stick with him through the majority of the second half -- played a significant role in Detroit's latest win. Chalking the outcome up to Cutler's lack of mobility, however, would be ignoring some of what Detroit accomplished. Notably, that the Lions' clutch drive in the closing moments of the fourth quarter came courtesy of some stellar throws by Stafford and with Reggie Bush grinding out yards. The benefit of a reliable run game is something Lions teams have not had in recent seasons, often leading to heartbreaking defeats.

This year shapes up to be remarkably different for the Lions, though. The season is a long way from its finish line, but Sunday's win gives Detroit a shot to break its extended division drought.

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