DETROIT – This is a familiar situation for Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions: They are in decent position to make the playoffs, but after a couple of poor performances, that's hardly a certainty.
The 2013 Lions wasted this type of opportunity, and the 2014 team is looking just shaky enough to leave its frustrated fan base feeling antsy.
"Nobody is happier than us that our game is on Thursday. We're ready to get back out there and play," Stafford said. "Obviously, any time you lose a game it's disappointing. Two in a row is that much more."
Detroit fell out of first place with losses to Arizona and New England, and now the pressure will be on during a crucial three-game homestand that begins Thursday against the Chicago Bears.
The Lions are favored in that Thanksgiving matchup, and after that they'll take on Tampa Bay and Minnesota.
Lose even once during that stretch, and Detroit (7-4) could be in trouble.
The previous time the Lions faced the Bears, they won 21-19 to complete a season sweep in 2013. That put Detroit at 6-3, but the Lions dropped six of their last seven games to miss the postseason.
So this year's 7-2 start did not guarantee anything.
Chicago (5-6) appeared to be out of the playoff chase when it gave up more than 50 points to New England and Green Bay in back-to-back games.
Since then, however, the Bears have beaten Minnesota and Tampa Bay. After facing the Lions this week, Chicago will play three of its last four at home.
The postseason is still a major longshot, but the worst may be over for the Bears.
"I think that's really a credit to our coaches and our players that we were able to put things behind us and go back to work," Chicago coach Marc Trestman said. "The one thing that has been consistent with our football team up to this point is, whether we've won or lost, our guys have gone back and worked. You really don't know during the week whether we had won or lost the last game."
Here are a few things to watch in this NFC North matchup:
PROTECTING STAFFORD: Detroit's pass protection has been one reason Stafford has had a hard time finding a groove this season. He's been sacked 33 times, three short of his career high.
Tackles Riley Reiff and Larry Warford have both been dealing with knee injuries.
Chicago has its share of impressive pass rushers, including Jared Allen and former Lion Willie Young.
MEGATRON'S MALAISE: Calvin Johnson has gained more than 100 yards only twice this season, and although he missed a month with an ankle problem, his production is raising some eyebrows around Detroit. The 29-year-old star has been targeted 37 times in the three games since returning from his injury, and he caught only 16 of those passes.
"As a team we've all took a turn, whether it be a drop here or a missed assignment here or there," Johnson said. "So the biggest thing for us is we just have to tighten things up."
STOPPING THE RUN: Detroit's defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run. That didn't matter much last weekend when Tom Brady picked the Lions apart, but if the Bears are planning to rely on their Matt Forte-led rushing game, that might play into Detroit's hands.
SLOW STARTS: It's been a while since either of these teams built a big early lead. The Lions won four in a row before losing to Arizona and New England, but in three of those wins, they had to rally late in the fourth quarter.
The Bears, meanwhile, have trailed 10-0 or worse in each of their past five games.
"We have not started well and we admit to those mistakes and we're constantly going to work at that," Trestman said. "But the other side of the coin is that when we've gotten down, we've continued to press forward. We did that as a team last week and we're hoping to do it again. But it's a collective process."
HISTORY: The Lions had lost nine straight games on Thanksgiving before last year's victory over Green Bay. The Bears haven't played on this holiday since a 2004 loss at Dallas. They haven't played at Detroit on Thanksgiving since a 21-17 loss in 1999.
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