Lions control own fate in tough NFC North

CHICAGO -- Calvin Johnson stood at the podium, his Detroit Lions having beaten the Chicago Bears in Chicago for the first time since his rookie season, and even then, there was a little disbelief.

He had actually beaten the Lions in Chicago before? He had not thought that had happened, saying earlier in the week he had never won in Soldier Field. The misunderstanding is understandable considering that in Johnson's career the Lions had one good season before this one, surrounded by a bunch of mediocrity.

"Oh man, we won here my rookie year?" Johnson asked. "OK, that's how long it's been. Been awhile."

"Been awhile" is a way to describe this Detroit season. Been awhile since this, since that, since the Lions have beaten Chicago on the road (2007) and been in first place all alone this late in the season (1999). In beating Chicago 21-19, the Lions added to a list of things they have done for the first time in a while.

It's been the type of season that could wipe out those years of losing. In other years, the Lions likely would have let the Bears convert a tying two-point conversion and then go on to win in overtime. But on Sunday, Nick Fairley made a stop on the second conversion attempt following a Willie Young roughing-the-passer penalty.

These are the new Lions. Make a stop when the team needs it? Sure. Come from behind to win a game? No problem. Hold on to a lead? Most of the time, they can handle it.

All of that has led to this: In the toughest, tightest division in the NFL, the Detroit Lions are the ones in first place and the Detroit Lions are the ones who have complete control over whether they make the playoffs.

Sunday's win gives Detroit a tiebreaker advantage over Chicago and a one-game lead on Green Bay, a team that still has to go to Detroit on Thanksgiving, perhaps without its starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

Not a bad spot to be in at all.

"We control our own destiny now," wide receiver Kris Durham said. "That's big. First time in I don't know how long we've won here. Big win, and it kind of just keeps the momentum going for the rest of the games."

It is momentum that could have disappeared so many times during this season. It could have gone away after Detroit lost on a last-second field goal to Cincinnati in Week 7. Or it could have gone away with 62 seconds left in Week 8 against Dallas, with the Lions trailing. Instead, Detroit drove downfield and scored a winning touchdown with 12 seconds left.

And it could have gone away again Sunday, with the Bears driving with their just-inserted backup quarterback, Josh McCown, driving with two minutes left and scoring a touchdown, missing the two-point conversion but getting another chance because of Young's penalty.

"Oh man, I was nervous," right guard Larry Warford said. "It's the feeling you hate, but it's what makes the game exciting. I was pretty nervous.

"You've got that penalty toward the end, that roughing the passer and they scored the touchdown and it's like, ‘Oh my God, what do we have to do to put these guys away?' They just wouldn't go away for a little bit."

It led to one final chance for Chicago, that one last play to try to tie the game to steal all that momentum from Detroit, to have the Bears essentially do to Detroit what the Lions had done to Dallas two Sundays ago.

Then Chicago ran the ball and Bears running back Matt Forte ran right into a waiting Fairley, who flattened Forte and then kept running another 20 or so yards down the field, high-stepping the whole way.

Detroit still had its celebration. Had its momentum. Still had its confidence. And, for the first time all season, had complete control of the division all to itself.

Now, though, there is different pressure for Detroit, a group of players who are not accustomed to being in this spot even this late -- and to be fair, there are still seven weeks remaining in the season and the NFC North race is nowhere near over.

Detroit needs to learn to play in a role it is unaccustomed to -- the one of being the favorite to win its division. Beating Chicago did that.

"You've got to make it count," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "It's a good win, no question about it. Guys are happy in there, but at the same time, we're not satisfied."

They can't be. The Lions are in good position. They are trending toward becoming one of the better teams in the NFC and one that could make a playoff run.

Whether the Lions accomplish that, for the first time in a while, is up to them.

"That's the most important thing," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "We don't want to have to rely on anyone else to help us get to the next level of getting to the playoffs."

Right now, it is all up to Detroit. A new position, but not a bad one to be in at all.