The NFC North is known for its strength in depth and propensity to produce Super Bowl contenders. Once again, despite a few early blips, its protagonists are now hitting their stride. Early favourites, the Green Bay Packers, won again at the weekend to move into positive equity at 4-3. While this season's surprise packages, the Minnesota Vikings, hitched another ride aboard the relentless feet of Adrian Peterson to post 5-2.
All of which lends added importance to this evening's Monday Night Football, which sees their two remaining divisional rivals clash in a match neither can afford to lose. The Chicago Bears host the Detroit Lions and need a victory to keep pace with the Vikings. The bare recent stats look promising for the home team, having claimed seven of last eight in the series - mostly recently, a 37-13 win at Soldier Field in mid-November.
Quarter-back, Jay Cutler, has been at the controls for a few of those head-to-heads (taking five of the past six when you include his time in Denver) and is continuing to bolster his credentials as an elite offensive leader. Of course, it helps when the troops you marshal can also play. And his own canon-delivery aside, Cutler has benefited from having some other great weapons at his disposal in Chicago.
Wide man, Brandon Marshall, continues in good heart this term (three TDs for a wafer shy of 500 yards) and enjoys some good memories of big-game hunting against the Lions. As does running back, Matt Forte, whose dependable hooves are now sharing the ground assault with Michael Bush. As if that didn't already make for a perfectly posed O, along comes that human highlight reel, Devin Hester, to give the Bears some wildcard flair.
On paper, then, it looks pretty ominous for Detroit. And that's even before you factor in Chicago's opportunistic defense. Fortunately, though, football matches aren't played on paper - and these are no paper Lions. Such substance was neatly emphasised when they avoided tumbling to a fourth successive loss in Philadelphia last Sunday, rallying late in the fourth to overcome a 10-point deficit.
That potentially pivotal comeback arrived in spite of 16 penalties, making Detroit the first team to win with so many infractions since 2005. Quarter-back, Matt Stafford also threw for 311 yards (with a touchdown offsetting an earlier interception) and once more proved that when he's on, he is a match for any opposing side. Stafford's problem, however, is that the passing planets align all too infrequently. Nevertheless, for all his erratic performances, he can keep a team close and will draw some comfort from prevailing in his only MNF start to date against the Bears.
Star wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, could also prove a decisive contributor for the Lions. Over his past three games, "Megatron" averages five catches for 92.3 yards and two touchdowns. And this season he looks like a champion thoroughbred who is coming to hand for the major spoils of summer. Johnson relishes this national spotlight and is a showman who could steal any showpiece event. However, he will need to be at the peak of his powers to make plays on this wily Bears secondary (allowing a league-low 14.2 points per match).
The Vegas line seldom errs and a touchdown seems a fair differential here when you consider the Detroit's capacity to stay within hailing distance. Yet, the suspicion persists that the Lions can go missing for long periods and have no effective running game with which to provide their meat-and-drink gains (an encouraging 108 yards against ineffectual Philly is surely an erroneous point).
So back the Bears with confidence to aggregate a series of small supremacies. They should come out firing in the first half too in what should be a fractious but open encounter. Intense action is in store - and with Total Points pitched at only 46, the scoreboard should light up in agreement.
Back Chicago (-6.5 points) on the Match Point Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Chicago (-3.5 points) on the First-Half Point Spread @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back Over 46.5 Total Points @ 1.9620/21 or better