What a difference two months makes.
Matthew Stafford had his worst game of the season Oct. 2 at Soldier Field (23-of-36, 213 yards, no touchdowns, and two of the five interceptions the Bears have managed all year) in a 17-14 loss that left both teams 1-3. That was the last week the Bears weren't in last place in the NFC North by themselves.
Detroit has won seven of eight since, and is now in the division driver's seat, with a two-game lead over Green Bay and Minnesota (but it's really 2 1/2 over the Vikings after sweeping the season series). The Lions will either have a long memory from the first meeting, or look where the Bears have gone since, as they look forward to a difficult three-game finish if they're to hold on for the first division crown since 1993 (at New York Giants, at Dallas, host Green Bay).
Sunday's win in New Orleans was the first time the Lions hadn't trailed in the fourth quarter all season, with a start-to-finish 28-13 victory. While they had to settle for field goals on four of their trips to the red zone, they also answered the bell in a hostile environment.
The Saints had just scored to get to within 19-13 early in the fourth quarter. Facing a 3rd-and-10 from their own 34, Golden Tate got open for a 66-yard catch and score to quiet the Superdome. Yes, that's the same Tate who was benched during a one-catch-for-one-yard afternoon on the lakefront opposite Tracy Porter.
The Golden Domer, admittedly dwelling on numbers following the retirement of Calvin Johnson, got the message. He's had 165- and 145-yard games (Sunday's was the latter) since, and seems back to his former self, up to 65 catches while ranking third among receivers in yards-after-catch. That's come as Marvin Jones has been hobbled by injuries since entering the first meeting with 118- and 205-yard efforts.
Ageless Anquan Boldin has caught six of Stafford's 21 touchdown passes, while Theo Riddick has five in ranking third among running backs with 53 receptions. While his 3.9-yard average fronts a 29th-ranked run game that's churning out just 81 yards per contest after the early loss of Ameer Abdullah, it's part of what's made this turnaround all the more impressive if you're into stats.
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The Lions are just 18th in points per game (22.9), entered Monday night 21st in yards (337.3), and middle-of-the-pack in red-zone touchdown percentage (55.9). Yet they're finding ways to win to make head coach Jim Caldwell's seat considerably cooler after a turnover in management.
Speaking of turnover, even though he gave it up twice in Week 4 to the Bears, Stafford's been intercepted just 10 times over his last 23 games (with 47 touchdown passes). He set a franchise record by completing 13 straight passes Sunday. He ranks eighth in the NFL in completion percentage (67.2) this season, sixth in passer rating (100.5) and 10th in passing yards (3,224).
After an injury-plagued first couple of seasons in which he was a Jay Cutler-like gunslinger, he's truly, finally, evolved into the franchise quarterback the Lions envisioned when they used the top pick in the 2009 draft on him, especially after Jim Bob Cooter took over play-calling duties midway through last season. His knack for comebacks (as noted this year above), keeps his team in games, and he's done it all along with shaky, at best, offensive lines.
The current makeup finds first-round pick Taylor Decker protecting his blind side, third-round rookie Graham Glasgow (from Marmion Military Academy) at left guard (supplanting struggling 2015 top pick Laken Tomlinson out of Lane Tech).
Third-year third-rounder Travis Swanson continues holding down center, flanked on his right by 2013 third-rounder Larry Warford. Riley Rieff was once thought to be the left tackle of the future, but the 2012 first-rounder's been switched to the right edge in what may be his last season in Motown.
Physically-gifted top 2014 choice Eric Ebron has been slow to blossom at tight end in an injury-plagued start to his pro career. He missed three games after the first meeting with foot and ankle woes, had a pair of seven-catch games upon his return, but has cooled down some since, while not scoring since the season opener.