CHICAGO -- This is what we want from our NFC North football, isn't it? We want two hard-hitting teams bashing heads, before the whistle and after, for 60 minutes. We love it when weather conditions affect the game. We live for all-out brawls that reduce our heroes to raw gladiators.
We got all of that Sunday at Soldier Field, a confluence of conditions that brought out the best in one team and the worst in another. The Chicago Bears played their best game of the season, and the Detroit Lions their worst, in a 37-13 victory. The Bears' decisive performance left the NFL world little choice but to embrace their playoff viability, while the Lions' meltdown at least gives us reason to question their short-term future.
"It wasn't clean and it wasn't quiet," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. "I know that."
Indeed, the Bears scored twice on defense and once on special teams, accounting for more than half of their point total on a day when wind gusts approached 40 miles per hour. Their offense totaled only 216 yards and 12 first downs but made only one damaging mistake, a second-quarter fumble on an exchange between Cutler and tailback Matt Forte.
In other words, they played quintessential Bears football in a game that brought them even with the Lions at 6-3.
On the other hand, the Lions let the physical nature of the game get to them. Fumbles by Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson scuttled their first two drives and led to an early deficit. Quarterback Matthew Stafford followed with four interceptions, doubling his season total; Stafford attributed the performance more to wind and not a fractured right index finger. The Lions committed only four penalties, but three were personal fouls, and they were fortuante to escape penalty when Stafford instigated a fourth-quarter brawl.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz accurately attributed the loss to "turnovers and the returns for touchdowns" and said "it had nothing to do with physical play." He added: "I'll match our guys up against their guys anytime. That is a tough, physical team. We are a tough, physical team, but this game turned out the way it did because of turnovers and the return game. No other reason."
Well, yes and no. I think we can agree that the hard-hitting Lions are as physical as any team in the league. But what counts is how you perform in that context. The Lions couldn't hold on to either the ball or their heads amid that environment.
More examples: Bears cornerback Charles Tillman knocked the ball lose from Johnson on a near-touchdown in the second quarter, then pushed through him in the third quarter for an interception he returned for a touchdown.
"We played the way we wanted to play," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "I don't think you're going to lose too many games playing like that on defense. That's as dominant as I've been around since I've been here, I think. They had  yards, whatever, they were late in the game."
The Lions were equally as physical, but it didn't induce any game-breaking plays. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh somehow ended up with Cutler's helmet in his hands after one run in the second quarter. Rookie defensive tackle Nick Fairley was called for unecessary roughness against Cutler in the fourth quarter, but Cutler didn't let the pressure prompt future mistakes.
We can't say the same about Stafford, who lost his temper in the fourth quarter while Jennings returned the final interception. As Jennings ran out of bounds, Stafford disengaged himself from Bears cornerback D.J. Moore by flipping him to ground. Moore jumped off the ground and dove for Stafford before players from both teams jumped in.
"Just trying to get him off of me best I knew how," Stafford said. "I guess he didn't like the way I did it. And he wanted to ask me about it."
Asked if he liked the way he did it, Stafford smiled and said, "Yup."
Stafford wasn't penalized, but Moore was ejected from the game. In the coming days, we might hear about fines and possible suspensions for leaving the bench. Moore admitted he was wrong but said Stafford grabbed him by the helmet and implied officials didn't eject Stafford "because he's a little more important for the league."
Lions players were livid after seeing an opponent jump on their quarterback and were willing to overlook Stafford's role in the fracas. "That [expletive] is not going to fly around here," center Dominic Raiola said. "They can say all they want. They can say, 'Look at the scoreboard, blah blah blah.' We're not going to back down from anybody, no matter when it is, where it is, the game is lost on the field. All the extra [expletive], we're not going to put up with."
Burleson said that when an opponent "is out there having fun, that really pisses us off."
Overall, that's great. That means winning and losing is important to the Lions, something you couldn't always say about their teams in recent years.
I've felt for months that the Lions are a team capable of earning a playoff spot, and I haven't wavered even as they've hit a midseason rough spot that reached three losses in four games Sunday. In reality, those defeats have come to three good teams: the Bears (6-3), the San Francisco 49ers (8-1) and Atlanta Falcons (5-4).
In my mind, there is still every reason to include the Lions in the playoff chase. Had the season ended Sunday, they would have joined the Bears as an NFC wild-card team. But to remain in that position for seven more weeks, the Lions need to take a page from the Bears' performance Sunday.
It's not enough just to be physical. Execution amid brutality is what wins November and December games in the NFC North. The Lions managed half of that formula Sunday. The Bears are now 6-3 because they've mastered it.