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Bears-Lions preview: Even Lovie realizes this game is pivotal

“This will be good gauge see exactly where we are if we corrected [mistakes]” Lovie Smith said. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

“This will be a good gauge to see exactly where we are, if we corrected [mistakes],” Lovie Smith said. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Time: 7:30 tonight at Ford Field.
TV: Ch. 26, ESPN (Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden).
Radio: 780-AM, 105.9-FM. • Line: Lions by 51/2.

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Updated: November 16, 2011 11:45AM

DETROIT — Very little is definitive in Lovie Smith’s world. Ask him if Julius Peppers has to step up, and he’ll say all his star players have to step up. Is it Mike Martz’s fault the Bears have wasted so many timeouts this season? ‘‘It’s all of us,’’ he said.

Ask him if he’s concerned about one thing, and he’ll say he’s concerned about everything. Give him a multiple-choice question, and his answer invariably is ‘‘all of the above.’’ The answer to any either-or query is ‘‘both.’’

There is no biggest game. Never a defining moment. Is Ndamukong Suh the best defensive tackle he has faced? Not even worth asking this week.

But even Smith can’t ignore the import of the Bears’ game against the Lions on Monday night at Ford Field as a litmus test.

‘‘This will be a good gauge to see exactly where we are, if we corrected [mistakes],’’ Smith said. ‘‘After the first quarter of the season, this should be about who you are. I’m anxious to see who we are Monday night.’’

Aren’t we all. The Bears think they’re every bit the NFC contender they turned out to be last season. The skeptics say they’re much closer to the middle of the pack. After four games, nobody’s right. The Bears are 2-2, but their losses are to the last two Super Bowl champions — the Packers (4-0) at Soldier Field and the Saints (3-1) at the Superdome.

Their defense has been a disappointment. The Bears entered the week 31st in total yards and 20th in points allowed. But they’ve faced four teams in the top 12 in total offense, including three in the top five — the Saints (No. 2), the Panthers (No. 3) and the Packers (No. 5). And all three still would be in the top eight without their yardage against the Bears.

Maybe the Bears still will make the playoffs if they get annihilated Monday night. And maybe they’ll finish 7-9 if they win. But this has all the earmarks of a telltale game that will show us which direction Smith’s ship is sailing. It’s on the road, in a domed stadium, with a capacity crowd that’s going to be at a fever pitch from the opening kickoff and against a division rival that thinks it can be somebody.

The Bears have beaten the Lions six consecutive times and in 10 of their last 12 games, including five of the last six at Ford Field. And this game, even more than most, will hinge on the Bears’ most basic strength, the ability of their defensive line to impose its will against a Lions offensive line that thrives more on continuity than by having Pro Bowl players.

There’s nothing like a big game on the road in a dome to find out what you’ve got. Since 1994, the Bears have made the playoffs in every season they’ve had a winning record in domed stadiums (a combined 10-1 in 2001, 2006-07 and 2010.

So it seems fair to call this game pivotal, right?

‘‘It’s definitely fair for that. This is a huge game,’’ Smith said. ‘‘One game doesn’t make your season, especially a game this early, but for us, this next quarter is as important a quarter as we’ve had.

‘‘We’ll find out a lot more. All teams missed a lot of work in the offseason. So I don’t know if the first quarter is a true indicator of where everyone is. I think in the second quarter, you’re going to start to see exactly the pretenders separating themselves a little bit more from the teams that will actually contend.’’

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