Chicago — Sunday's game at Soldier Field was supposed to be a coronation of sorts for the Lions.
On Saturday night, they clinched a playoff berth with the Eagles' loss in Washington, and Sunday they had a matchup against a foundering, division-rival Bears team that benched its $126 million quarterback Jay Cutler in favor of Jimmy Clausen, who hadn't started a game since 2010.
Chicago's fans clearly had enough as the team announced 9,028 tickets went unused, which was actually an improvement from last week's Monday night loss to New Orleans.
Yet, the game was as much of a nail-biter as any this season, and like many of the close ones, the Lions prevailed, winning 20-14 despite two red-zone interceptions by Matthew Stafford and a few costly special teams' blunders.
Now, the Lions are 11-4 and have ensured their best finish since 1991 when they finished 12-4. The Green Bay Packers (11-4) also won Sunday, beating Tampa Bay 20-3, to guarantee next Sunday's game in Green Bay will decide the NFC North.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell refused to discuss the playoffs last week, saying he would wait until his team clinched a spot. On Saturday, he became the third coach in franchise history to reach the postseason in his first year, but didn't consider it a feather in his cap.
"That's what I'm supposed to do," Caldwell said. "That's why they hired me. I think they hired me to come in here and win football games. I believe that's part of doing my job."
Even after sweeping the season series against Chicago (5-10), the Lions recognized that they'll need to correct some mistakes before next Sunday to win their first division title since 1993.
"That's clear to see that we've got to play better," wide receiver Calvin Johnson said. "We can't turn the ball over three times. You can't win against a good team turning the ball over three times. I'm not saying that Chicago wasn't a good team, but we just grinded it out today."
Stafford finished 22 of 39 for 243 yards and two interceptions, and he took four sacks. Johnson had six catches for 103 yards and eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards for the fifth consecutive season, a franchise record. Joique Bell had 13 carries for 74 yards, Reggie Bush had seven carries for 54 yards and each scored a touchdown as the Lions finished with a season-high 138 rushing yards.
The Lions' third turnover was a muffed punt by Jeremy Ross, which gave the Bears the ball at the 11-yard line and set up a touchdown in the second quarter. Linebacker Julian Stanford drew a flag for roughing the kicker on a punt that set up a third-quarter touchdown for Chicago.
Allowing just 14 points despite those three turnovers was impressive for the Lions' No. 2-ranked defense, but that unit wasn't perfect either. The Lions had just one sack in the first three quarters, and left openings for Clausen, though his receivers dropped several passes.
Lions' Ndamukong Suh on the win over Bears
"We've had starts like this unfortunately before, so we found a way to get it done and that's most important," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "We definitely understand we need to play a lot better. We need to start faster.
"We need to come out like (Mike) Tyson and just start swinging."
The Lions are 6-2 in games decided by one score this season.
For the Bears, Clausen finished 23 of 39 for 181 yards, two touchdowns and a fourth-down interception on Chicago's final drive in the fourth quarter. Lions safety Glover Quin corralled the pick, his league-high seventh of the season.
The game started well for the Lions as they forced two three-and-outs and then scored on their second drive. On the scoring possession, the Lions converted a fourth-and-6 at the Chicago 34 with a 21-yard pass to Bush, and he scored on a 13-yard run on the next play to give them a 7-0 lead with 5:15 left in the first quarter.
It was Bush's second touchdown of the season and his first since Week 3. He was the primary back in the first quarter as the Lions benched Bell for a quarter for a violation of team rules.
After the score, though, the Lions began playing as sloppily as they have all season. The Bears reached the Detroit 1 on the ensuing possession, but the Lions stopped them on the next three plays, including an ugly pass from Clausen to offensive lineman Eben Britton on fourth-and-goal.
The Lions drove to the red zone, but on second-and-11 at the Chicago 17, Stafford threw into heavy traffic in the end zone, a pass intercepted by Bears rookie safety Brock Vereen.
The Bears couldn't take advantage of the turnover, which was Stafford's first interception since Week 12, but the Lions gave it back on their next possession, too. This time, Stafford threw to a well-covered Golden Tate, and safety Ryan Mundy intercepted it at the Chicago 2.
Like many players, Stafford said the struggles had nothing to do with an emotional hangover from clinching a playoff spot the previous day.
"I think our energy was there, but we've just got to execute better," he said.
Chicago escaped the shadow its end zone, but had to punt after reaching the Detroit 40 because of a false start on fourth down. Somehow, the punt became the Bears' best play of the game.
Ross was about a yard behind the ball when it landed, bounced off him and Bears cornerback Sherrick McManus recovered at the Detroit 11. On the next play, Clausen hit running back Matt Forte for an 11-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 with 36 seconds left in the first half.
The Lions opened the third quarter with a field-goal drive as Matt Prater hit a 39-yarder to take a 10-7 lead, but a special teams blunder on the following Bears drive led to another touchdown.
On fourth-and-23 at the Detroit 39, the Bears punted, but Stanford drew a penalty for roughing the kicker. Even though the call was questionable at best, it gave the Bears an automatic first down.
Three plays later, Clausen threw a perfect 20-yard touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, who plucked the ball over Lions cornerback Darius Slay's head. With 2:45 left in the third quarter, the woeful Bears led the Lions, 14-10.
The Lions responded with yet another deep drive that resulted in no points. They reached the Chicago 16 before ultimately settling for a 37-yard field-goal attempt that Bears defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff blocked.
The Bears couldn't take advantage of the third big special teams play, and the Lions scored on the following drive. On a third-and-10 at the Detroit 37, Stafford chucked a deep ball to Corey Fuller along the right sideline, and the underthrown pass drew a pass interference penalty on Tim Jennings.
Following the 46-yard infraction, Bell scored on an impressive 17-yard TD in which he juked a couple defenders and bounced off another en route to the end zone, giving the Lions a 17-14 lead with 7:15 left in the fourth quarter.
The Bears gained just one fourth down the rest of the game, and the Lions added a 30-yard Prater field goal to bring the final to 20-14.
"This is what we play for," Johnson said. "We're right there on the doorstep, but we have one more task ahead of us, and that's to go out next week and get another W."
Raiola's dirty play
Here is video of Dominic Raiola's stomp on Ego Ferguson in the third quarter: