Khalil Mack went through his first full practice in nearly a month this week.
The return of Mack to the lineup could provide a huge lift for the Chicago Bears, getting their elite pass-rushing linebacker healthy in time for a 12-day stretch that will feature three games against NFC North opponents.
Chicago holds a slim half-game edge over Minnesota atop the division as it prepares to host Detroit on Sunday -- the first of two matchups against the Lions in 12 days sandwiched around a showdown against the Vikings.
"We're halfway through the season now and we've got three big divisional opponents coming up, and we kind of know where we're at as a team," Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky said. "These next three games will tell a lot about who we are and where we're headed."
Chicago bounced back from losses to Miami and New England with back-to-back victories over the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills to maintain its hold on first place. It's the latest the team has been atop the NFC North since 2012.
"First place right now doesn't matter," Bears running back Tarik Cohen said. "It's all about where you finish at the end. So we don't even feel like we're in first place."
Even with Mack sitting out both games, Chicago's defense dominated the Jets (24-10) and Bills (41-9), holding them to a combined 19 points and not allowing a touchdown in either game until the fourth quarter.
Trubisky has not been needed to do much in the past two wins, throwing for 220 yards against the Jets and a season-low 135 in the rout of Buffalo. That has led to skepticism among the media and fans about whether Trubisky can handle the upcoming three-game stretch, but Bears head coach Matt Nagy wants his quarterback to tune out the noise.
"I think any time you are drafted as a quarterback early and high in the draft, you're always gonna be critiqued," Nagy said. "But again, the only thing that he needs to worry about is what I think about him and what people in this building think about him. Everybody's entitled to their opinion and that's OK ... but as long as he just understands that the only thing that matters is what we think, nothing will affect him."
Nagy brushed aside the fact that Trubisky struggled with his accuracy against the Jets and Bills, instead giving credit to some "pretty solid defenses." The No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft, Trubisky passed for more than 300 yards in three straight games prior to the last two wins.
"It really doesn't matter what anybody says on the outside," Trubisky said. "We're the ones putting the work in preparing for each game and putting it on the line every Sunday. What everybody has to say about it, they only know so much."
The Lions (3-5) have tumbled into the division basement after scoring just 19 points in consecutive losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Vikings. Detroit failed to get into the end zone in the 24-9 loss at Minnesota and quarterback Matthew Stafford absorbed a staggering 10 sacks.
"Look, no one likes a game that we had on Sunday. Certainly not a good situation for us there," Lions head coach Matt Patricia said. "There's a lot of contributing factors to something like that. But I think again, it's a full team game, so probably should have done something better all the way around to help everybody because obviously we didn't win, and that's the main thing is trying to win."
Stafford failed to throw for a touchdown pass for the first time this season in Detroit's first game since trading away wide receiver Golden Tate. The Lions may lean more on the running back tandem of rookie Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount.
Although Johnson was limited to 37 yards on 12 carries against the Vikings, he has 503 yards rushing through eight games and is on pace to be the franchise's first 1,000-yard running back since Reggie Bush in 2013.
Chicago's passing game could receive a boost with the potential return of wide receiver Allen Robinson II, who went through a full practice for the first time since suffering a groin injury in Week 7 against New England that sidelined him the past two games.
Detroit also is expecting a bigger contribution from defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who last week saw his first action since the season opener and recorded one sack while playing 12 snaps.