CHICAGO -- As one of the surprise teams in the NFL this season, the Detroit Lions entered yesterday's game hungry for sole possession of first place in the NFC Central. As it stands now, the Lions may have to wait until Thanksgiving Day for another chance to taste the top.
Playing at windy and bitterly cold Soldier Field -- the "reverse dome factor," Chicago coach Mike Ditka called it -- the Bears recovered from a slow start to score 17 unanswered points in the second half for a 20-10 win before a crowd of 57,281. First-place Chicago improved to 7-2, while Detroit dropped to 6-3 and was left looking forward to the Thanksgiving Day rematch with Chicago in the climate-controlled Silverdome.
"I hope this hurts, because I want us to take it hard," said Detroit offensive tackle Lomas Brown. "We're one game behind now, and we're confident on Thanksgiving Day that we'll play better."
Offensive stars for the Bears were quarterback Jim Harbaugh and wide receiver Wendell Davis, who combined on second-half scoring passes of 22 and 8 yards for Chicago's only touchdowns.
But playing in a typical Bears setting, the game was won in typical Bears fashion -- by the defense. After Detroit jumped out to a 10-3 halftime lead, the Lions managed just 115 yards in total offense in the second half.
Barry Sanders, who was averaging 103 yards rushing going in, VTC finished with 63. He rushed for just 9 yards in the second half -- and did not carry the ball in the fourth quarter.
"I can't elaborate, because I haven't talked to the coaches yet," said Sanders, when asked of his disappearing act in the fourth quarter. "Whatever's called, you have to go out and execute it. We had great field position a couple of times, but we just didn't score."
The only Detroit points came in the second quarter. Quarterback Erik Kramer, playing because of last week's season-ending Achilles' injury to Rodney Peete, hit Brett Perriman on an 11-yard pass to cap an 80-yard drive to make it 7-3. On the final play of the half, Eddie Murray kicked a 31-yard field goal for a 10-3 advantage.
Chicago's offense was going nowhere when the Bears got a break after their first second-half drive. Maurice Douglas recovered a punt that bounced off the leg of Detroit's Melvin Jenkins.
On the next play, Harbaugh threw 11 yards to Neal Anderson for Chicago's first first down since late in the first quarter. By drive's end, Kevin Butler had kicked his second field goal and Detroit's lead was cut to 10-6.
The points appeared to wake up the Bears, with Harbaugh later hitting Davis on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 26 seconds left )) in the third to give Chicago a 13-10 lead.
The clincher came with 3:53 left when, with Harbaugh scrambling on a play that was breaking down, Davis got free in the back of the end zone for an 8-yard catch.
"The defender never did see the football, and I did," said Davis, who matched the two touchdown catches he had coming in. "I just came back to it and made the catch."
Detroit tried to get its offense untracked in the second half through the air as Kramer, whose last start was in 1988 for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League, passed on 21 of the Lions' 30 second-half plays. Detroit did not run the ball at all in the fourth quarter.
"We tried to keep as much as seven people near what we call the box to stop Sanders," Ditka said. "When you do that against the run-and-shoot, you're playing with a loaded gun, because they can get you."
But Detroit didn't, and for that Chicago is back to its usual perch on top the NFC Central. Meanwhile, the Lions are 1-3 against teams with winning records. But Detroit players are not ready to give up their quest to join the NFL elite.
"If we win [against Chicago], the others will be chasing you the rest of the year," Detroit wide receiver Mike Farr said. "But they're not handing out the prize now -- they hand them out at the end of the season.
"That's what we'll shoot for," Farr added, pointing to the Thanksgiving showdown. "Right now, we'll just have to chase."