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Showdown in the Windy City

This Sunday, Detroit kicks off the 2010 regular season by traveling down the road to take on their longtime rival the Chicago Bears. After a strong preseason, things seem to be coming together for the Lions, and optimism – though tempered by years of tragedy – is higher than usual in Motown.

It feels all too familiar.

Just a few years ago, Detroit travelled to Chicago for the second game of the 2006 season. We had a new tough-minded coach in Rod Marinelli, a wizard of an offensive coordinator in Mike Martz, and a new veteran presence at quarterback in John Kitna.

Roy Williams and Kevin Jones were set to lead a high powered offense, and our defense was stacked with talent like Boss Bailey, Shaun Rogers, Teddy Lehman, Fernando Bryant and rookie Ernie Sims. After a close 9-6 loss to the Seahawks in Game 1, I knew that the Lions were set to unleash hell on the Bears. Everything was coming together.

Boy was I wrong.

The Bears kicked us about the face and head until we cried mercy. Rex Grossman hurled 4 touchdown passes (yes, THAT Rex Grossman!) and the Lions offense was held to one score in a 34-7 rout. All the hopes and enthusiasm I had for a breakout season evaporated in that game.

The Lions were exposed as frauds, pretenders and charlatans. It felt like getting gut-punched by Randy Couture (not that I ever hope to find out what that actually feels like).

Four years later and none of those “amazing talents” remain on the Lions squad or coaching staff. Jones, Lehman, Bryant and Bailey are out of the league.

Kitna and Williams went to Dallas where the first is a high-quality backup and the second may soon be demoted to that. Only Shaun Rogers has remained true to form – flashes of brilliance amid solid if not dominant play. The jury is still out on whether Sims will be able to reignite his career in Philadelphia .

As for the coaches, in a bizarre string of celestial circumstances, both of the above-mentioned gentlemen now walk the Chicago sideline. After Detroit , Marinelli returned to his defensive line coach position, while Martz is trying to resurrect the “Greatest Show on Turf” in his third city since St. Louis .

So what makes me so sure that 2010’s visit to Chicago will be infinitely better than 2006’s?

First, the Bears are no longer a Superbowl-caliber team like they were in 2006. They still have some potent weapons on both sides of the ball, but there are many more cracks as well. Second, the Lions are a deeper team offensively, with a larger variety of talent.

In the receiving corps, Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson are a world apart from Roy Williams and Mike Furrey, as are Tony Sheffler and Brandon Pettigrew over Dan Cambell and Marcus Pollard. Plus, if Jahvid Best continues to play as well as he did in the preseason, the upgrade to the Lions running game will be substantial.

Lastly, the Lions defense – gaps and all – is improved from 2006. Kyle Vanden Bosch stands to be the best defensive end to wear Honolulu Blue since Robert Porcher. Moreover, this year’s highly touted first round pick – Ndamukong Suh – should be a much bigger hit than our highly touted first rounder in 2006 (Ernie Sims).

Plus, if Cory Williams can return to his 4-3 roots and Cliff Avril can become the player we all hoped Kalimba Edwards would be four years ago, the defensive line will be deadly. Linebackers Peterson, Levy (assuming he is healthy) and Follett are presently no worse as a unit than Bailey, Lehman and Sims and have the potential to be much better.

As noted throughout the offseason, the defensive backfield will be the huge question mark. I shudder to look back at 2006 and think that Dre’ Bly, Fernando Bryant and rookie Daniel Bullocks would likely be an improvement over the 2010 Lions secondary.

Louis Delmas can only do so much, even when not bothered by a lingering groin injury. Nonetheless, with better pressure up front, I think our current troops will still find ways to stymie Jay Cutler.

Prediction: Lions 30 – Bears 23

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