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Tice soft pedals his return home

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Some Bears players don’t care where they’ll play the Vikings on Monday night. But Mike Tice does.

Minneapolis is still home.

Tice, the Bears’ offensive line coach who played for the Vikings and was their head coach from 2002 to ’05, is looking forward to returning to Minneapolis, where the Bears are expected to play the Vikings at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium.

‘‘Of course it means a lot to me,’’ Tice said. ‘‘I’ve got a lot of dear friends there that are still Vikings fans, still Mike Tice fans and still dear, dear friends.’’

But anybody who knows Tice knows there’s more to it than that. Tice was fired as the Vikings’ head coach after the 2005 season. And when the Bears played the Vikings at Soldier Field on Nov. 14, he let his offensive linemen know that this wasn’t just another game to him.

The Bears responded with their best offensive game since the season opener — 360 total yards, including 130 rushing in a 27-13 victory.

‘‘We knew how much it meant to him,’’ center Olin Kreutz said after that game. ‘‘We definitely wanted to go out there and perform for him.’’

A lot of people think Tice just loves to stick it to the Vikings.

‘‘That’s not true,’’ he said. ‘‘I played for the Vikings. I was rooting for the Vikings last week and was pissed that they lost to the Giants.’’

So no hard feelings?

‘‘No,’’ he said. ‘‘I had hard feelings early on because of the way [his firing] was handled. But I have no hard feelings.’’

This time, Tice is downplaying the retribution angle. There will be no big speech for the offensive line this week.

‘‘They knew that game meant a lot to me and took it upon themselves to give me — give us as a football team — every last thing they have,’’ Tice said. ‘‘[But] I don’t think at this stage of the season when we have so much at stake, anybody standing up there giving a pep talk is going to make a difference.’’

On the contrary, Tice doesn’t want to overdo it.

‘‘I’m going home,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m having dinner with my daughter and some friends — and trying not to get caught up in the moment personally. I told my guys today, ‘I don’t want to be a distraction’ to them. That wouldn’t be fair. They’ve worked too hard. We’ve come too far.’’

Just how far the Bears’ offensive line has come this season is a matter of debate. According to the New York Life Protection Index, the Bears’ line ranked 32nd in the NFL. The Bears’ running game is better than it was earlier in the season. But there seems to be a lot of room for improvement.

And Tice agrees.

Tice believes in his guys. He thinks they’re better than people think. But he’s not coaching with blinders on.

Tice said the offensive line ‘‘made strides’’ on Sunday, even though it didn’t look like it in the 36-7 loss to the Patriots.

‘‘I know. And that’s exactly what we said in the staff meeting,’’ Tice said. ‘‘I said, ‘You know coach, I hate to say this, but the guys played pretty good.’ When you get your ass kicked like that, you usually make an assumption that the entire team played bad.

‘‘But we’ve continued to get better at something each week, and that’s all I’ve asked the guys to do. We’re close in some areas to being pretty good. We have some areas we need a lot of work and some areas where we’re solid.’’

The best thing you can say for the Bears’ offensive line right now is they have the continuity they were lacking earlier in the season. Left tackle Frank Omiyale, left guard Chris Williams, center Olin Kreutz, right guard Roberto Garza and rookie right tackle J’Marcus Webb have started the last six games. That’s something to build on. And Tice isn’t selling them as anything more than what they are — a group that still needs to get better each week ‘‘and then we’ll see . . . if we’re going to be good enough to help us win,’’ Tice said.

Asked if he was happy with the line relative to where it started, Tice was pretty realistic.

‘‘I’m happy with the way they’re working,’’ Tice said. ‘‘I’m happy with the lack of mental errors. I get frustrated sometimes with the amount of plays that were close to succeeding. And being one block away. We’ve just got to continue to get better.

‘‘But still, if we continue to work, how much football do we have left, a month? Five weeks? Six weeks? Who knows? Because this is anybody’s season as you well know. Especially in the conference we’re in, the NFC.

‘‘Obviously, New England is one of the special teams in the league. We’ve just got to get better to be one of the better teams in our conference.’’

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