This one matters ... really
The Bears should approach Sunday's contest in Green Bay like it's a playoff game
"Because it really didn't matter," the Bears linebacker said. "Regardless of what happened last night, we were still going to play hard this weekend because we still had a goal of beating the Packers."
Tinoisamoa did admit it was "nice" to wake up to a guaranteed first-round bye, making it good to know that he gets adequate rest at night as the Vikes-Eagles ended well before Letterman did. But it's the Bears' rest this Sunday in Green Bay that is up for some debate.
Although Bears coach Lovie Smith sounds steadfast in his plan to "play to win" against the Packers, as with all things Bears-related, it's not that simple.
First off, the Bears will not know if they still have a chance for the No. 1 seed and thus home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs until sometime around kickoff Sunday, which is about when we can expect the conclusion of the Falcons-Panthers and Saints-Buccaneers games.
"Lovie said prior to [the Vikings-Eagles] game that we're going to be playing, we're going to be going full-go on Sunday, so that's what we expected," quarterback Jay Cutler said when asked if his focus had changed after Tuesday night's result.
"I expect to play the whole game. That's how we're preparing at this point."
It's also the wise way to go.
If the Bears beat the Packers, they will be the only team to go undefeated in the NFC North since the divisional realignment in 2002. The only other times the Bears swept division play were in 1985 and '87, which carries an asterisk of sorts because one game was canceled by strike.
It would be an incredible feat given the early uncertainty of this team. It should, however, matter minimally. But beating the Packers and eliminating them from the playoffs -- always a good thing.
"The Packers are a great team and I don't want to continue facing them, so I'm hoping we can go out and eliminate another good team," Devin Hester said. "I'd hate to see them three times in one year."
Given the choice between facing the Packers, whom the Bears would meet again only in a conference championship in Chicago, and, say, the Falcons in Atlanta? Then sure, bring on the Packers. But a Green Bay team coming off two playoff victories and a season final win over the Bears?
Eliminating Aaron Rogers from your sights is not a bad idea.
Little good comes from trying to manipulate play in the NFL, which is what resting the best players is all about. A serious injury to a key player like Cutler would be catastrophic for the Bears in the playoffs. But trying to decrease the odds of Cutler being injured by planning to pull him in the second half? The football gods can just as easily trip him up in the second quarter.
Does that mean you keep playing Cutler, Forte and Hester in the fourth quarter if the outcome is clear? Of course not. Cutler should be pulled during all regular-season games under those circumstances. I'll trust Smith to decide whether to do the same Sunday with defensive stars Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
While it is convenient and somewhat useful to look back at the 2005 and 2006 Bears and what happened the last time Smith rested his starters in season finales, again it's not that simple.
The Bears lost to Carolina 29-21 in the '05 playoffs after beating the Panthers 13-3 during the season. And while the Bears defeated Seattle in '06, again after Smith rested his starters, it took overtime to beat a team they clubbed 37-6 that season.
Smith said it was more a case of his '06 team being a better team than his '05 team. He also pointed out that injuries were a factor.
What we know for sure is that each team is indeed different and the 2010 Bears are as unpredictable as they are talented. Like almost every other team in the NFL, they are a work in progress, their offense getting better each week, their defense clearly in need of fine-tuning if not some serious tweaking.
"We want to continue to grow, continue to improve the way we've been doing here lately," Smith said Wednesday.
You can tell they are having fun watching their offense come together, still discovering what it is capable of, still gaining cohesion and consistency and confidence. What they don't need, with the following weekend off already, is to get stale.
"We want to keep it going, we don't want to take a step back," Smith said. "We want to continue. Even though we've played our best football as of late, we can't say we peaked yet and there are still some areas we need to improve on."
Reaching incentives, sweeping the division, eliminating the Packers from the postseason, all fine. But it should not be the Bears' motivation. Getting better should be.
They can rest on their own time.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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