Bears: No letting up vs. Packers
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The sign on the doors in the locker room at Halas Hall pointed to the Chicago Bears' intentions for Sunday's regular-season finale at Green Bay.
"Walkthrough inside. Practice outside," read a dry erase board, beneath a message indicating, "shoulder pads and shorts," as the dress for the day.
So it's safe to say the Bears don't plan on taking a breather Sunday by resting their starters against the Packers, despite the club clinching the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs to continue developing chemistry with the receivers. The offensive line needs more work in pass protection, and the performance of the defense -- which surrendered nearly 400 yards to the Jets -- disappointed the staff to the point where a player, who asked not to be identified, dreaded the extra running the unit would be subjected to Wednesday at practice.
It appears taking it easy isn't an option for this red-hot Bears team, concerned with the possibility of a deep freeze headed into the postseason.
"I expect to play the whole game," Cutler said. "That's how we're preparing at this point. [Coach] Lovie [Smith] said we're going to be going hard in that game, and we're going to be going full-go on Sunday. That's what we expect. We're playing really good football right now. We want to continue that when we go out there [against the Packers]."
That approach seems to be the preferred way for many of the team's players, who are encouraged by the prospect of not only sweeping the NFC North, but also pushing away the lifeboat the Packers await as they continue to tread water in hopes of a postseason berth.
Besides that, three weeks -- which is essentially how long key players would wait to play if they're held out against the Packers -- is nearly a month of inactivity, which could affect chemistry, conditioning, and grind momentum to a crawl.
That's way too long.
"You don't want to sit out three weeks," receiver Devin Hester said. "That's a long time for a player to sit out, and not really get in the game atmosphere and the conditioning. Knowing that we've got a bye week the following week, I would love to go out and play the whole game, finish out, and make sure I stay on my keys and points, and make sure I'm in top shape when the playoffs start."
Offensively, although Cutler has thrown for multiple touchdowns in five of eight outings since the bye, while generating a passer rating of 104.2 or better in four of the past five contests, the unit has still managed to struggle on third down, converting just 29.6 percent over the last three games.
The Bears haven't allowed more than two sacks in a game for three consecutive weeks, after surrendering three or more in the three previous contests (11 total) from Nov. 18 to Dec. 5.
So not only is there work to do offensively, the club doesn't want to impede the momentum it has built.
"We don't really want to take a step back as a team or as an offense the way we have played the last couple games," Cutler said. "We're kind of putting things together; we want to keep that going."
"We had a lot of guys that were banged up. But that's not the case with us right now. We're in pretty good shape," Smith said. "Injuries can happen at any time. But for us, the guys have prepared in the offseason to go through this year. We haven't had a lot of injuries. We're just gonna keep it going in that direction."
Smith also said the team won't change its approach against the Packers, regardless of the outcome of games involving the New Orleans Saints or the Atlanta Falcons, which could help the Bears (provided they win on Sunday) capture the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The fact the offense hasn't yet peaked also plays into Smith's approach.
"They're definitely evolving. We played them so early in the season. Now we've had an opportunity to watch them play of late. They've definitely hit their stride," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the Bears. "Jay looks a lot more comfortable. The big plays they had in last week's game against the Jets were impressive. They definitely look a lot more comfortable, and they're more aggressive in their scheme."
Defensively, the Bears nabbed nine takeaways in the four games since the bye week -- including at least one in every outing -- while allowing an average of 14.5 points. But in the past four games, the Bears generated seven takeaways -- including a two-game stretch in which they didn't produce any turnovers -- while allowing an average of 26 points.
The Bears are 7-0 when they finish on the positive side of the turnover margin this season, and 6-2 when they limit opponents to 17 points or fewer.
So clearly, the defense needs to regain whatever it's been missing heading into the postseason.
Smith knows inactivity won't allow that to happen.
"We want to keep it going. We don't want to take a step back. Even though we've played our best football here as of late, [I] can't say that we've peaked yet; there are still some areas we need to improve upon," Smith said. "We want to stay with our routine. We're playing a game; this is the last team on our schedule.
"We want to win every game in our division. No one has ever done that before. We want to go into the playoffs on a high as much as anything. So [the approach] is not gonna change. We're gonna say the same thing tomorrow. That's what we're doing. Keep asking that question and I'll keep answering it that way."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.