Detroit Lions top Chicago Bears to finish season strong

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange   |   Jan. 4, 2016 at 1:40 AM
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CHICAGO -- Their futures are in doubt, but neither Calvin Johnson nor Jim Caldwell seemed terribly concerned after the Detroit Lions put the finishing touches on a nice second half of the season, beating the Chicago Bears 24-20, Sunday.

Johnson, a wide receiver, matched a season high by catching 10 passes, including a diving catch for one of quarterback Matt Stafford's three touchdown passes.

"In my mind, he'll be a Lion for life, no matter what happens," Stafford said of Johnson.

What happens will depend on how the team's new general manger decides to handle Johnson's $24 million salary cap figure as the team continues its rebuild in 2016.

That to-be-named GM also must settle the fate of Caldwell, the coach who restructured his staff at mid-season and led the Lions to a 6-2 finish after starting 1-7. But for Aaron Rodgers' magical Hail Mary, the Lions (7-9) would have finished the season at .500.

"You don't go 1-7 and come back 6-2 if your team doesn't believe in your coach, and we do," Stafford said. "He's done a heck of a job the second half of the season pulling everyone together."

The same can be said of Stafford, who threw 19 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in the final eight games after Jim Bob Cooter was promoted to replace Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator. Over the final three games, Stafford completed 79 of 101 passes for 853 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions -- and a 128.3 passer rating.

"I think we're just going to see him continue to get better," Caldwell said.

Caldwell, who has an 18-15 record in two seasons as the Lions' coach, declined to answer questions about his future, a decision owner Martha Ford said would be left to the new general manager.

After saying that the Lions' performance in the second half of the season "certainly does give you hope for the future," he said of his job status, "I worry about the things I can control." He described the uncertainty as "the nature of the business (and) if you can't handle it, go find something else to do."

Johnson's catches, which gained 137 yards, included three of the game's biggest plays. Just before halftime, he made a sideline grab that gained just enough yardage for Matt Prater to kick a 59-yard field goal. In the third quarter, he dove at the goal line to haul in a 36-yard touchdown pass from Stafford. And with the Lions trying to run out the clock at the end of the game, he managed a six-yard gain on third and five to snuff out Chicago's final hope.

"He controlled the tempo of the game," Caldwell said. "The touchdown catch was a thing of beauty."

The Lions got plenty of help from their defense. They intercepted three passes by Jay Cutler, who had not thrown more than one interception in a game all season, and all were critical.

The first interception, by James Ihedigbo, came in the end zone after the Bears drove to the 5-yard line. The second, by Tahir Whitehead, who returned it 26 yards, snuffed out a Bears drive just before halftime and made Prater's long field goal possible. The third, by Grover Quinn, killed a Chicago drive that reached the Lions' 37-yard line on first down with two minutes to go.

It was the third consecutive year that Detroit swept the two-game series from Chicago, which finished 1-7 at home and is 3-13 at Soldier Field the last two years.

"Today was pretty much a microcosm of our season," said John Fox, the Bears' coach. "I think it will get better. I know it's frustrating to go 1-7 here at Soldier Field, but we will get better."

Detroit, which led 10-0 at halftime, never trailed in the game. The Bears rallied twice to tie, at 10 and 17, before the Lions went ahead to stay on an 80-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to tight end Eric Ebron.

NOTES: WR Alshon Jeffery, placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury by the Bears last week, finished the season with 54 catches for 807 yards and four touchdowns in nine games, his least-productive year since becoming a full-time starter following his 2012 rookie season. With Jeffery's contract expiring, the Bears must make a decision whether to tag him as their franchise player or let him go in free agency. Despite missing seven games, Jeffery led the Bears in receiving yardage for the third year in a row. ... Lions K Matt Prater, who had made 21 of 22 previous field-goal attempts, missed his first attempt Sunday from 54 yards in the second quarter. ... The Bears finished the game without CB Alan Ball (hand) and DE Mitch Unrein (concussion). Bears K Robbie Gould's two field goals gave him 33 for the season, breaking his own team record of 32 set in 2006.

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