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Bears have plenty of reasons to go all out against Packers

When Bears visit Green Bay coach Lovie Smith will have determine how much play starters such as Matt Forte shown

When the Bears visit Green Bay, coach Lovie Smith will have to determine how much to play starters such as Matt Forte, shown here scoring a touchdown Sunday against the Jets. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:15AM

Perhaps Bears coach Lovie Smith engaged in some gamesmanship Monday when he insisted his team had plenty to play for in the season finale against the Green Bay Packers.

The Bears could wrap up, at worst, the No. 2 seed in the NFC tonight if the Minnesota Vikings can upset the Eagles in Philadelphia.

But before a reporter could even finish his question about that very scenario, Smith said, “That’s a long ways off, Tuesday.

“Right now, we’re planning on playing our guys the entire game.”

It’s an NFL coach’s classic Catch-22: Do you play every game to win — injuries be damned — or preserve the health of key players by limiting them in a game in which the stakes are low?

There are numerous examples to back up both sides. But remember what happened to the Bears in 2005: They rested quarterback Rex Grossman and other key players in the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings — and then were bounced by the Carolina Panthers 29-21 at Soldier Field.

It’s not an easy decision

There isn’t one fast and steady way to make this decision. But for the Bears, Smith’s public stance on this topic seems the most appropriate for his 2010 club.

First, there’s his stated goal when he first took control of this team of wanting to beat the Packers. Besides the obvious rivalry, the Bears also can eliminate a potential roadblock in the postseason.

The Packers need to win to get in, and they could wind up playing the Bears in the wild-card game at Soldier Field. Any sort of victory against the Bears, coupled with their beat-down of the New York Giants on Sunday, would give the Packers tremendous momentum.

Smith insisted his team is focused on one thing — a Super Bowl ring.

“Our motivation for us, like it’s always been, is to win a world championship,” Smith said. “As far as the Packers, we realize the rivalry, but it’s really just about us playing our best ball. And if something unfortunate happens to them, I mean, so be it.”

The second reason the Bears need to play to win Sunday is their health.

Teams typically rest starters because they are nursing injuries. But with the exception of linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and receiver Earl Bennett, the Bears are remarkably healthy, especially compared to the Packers.

Green Bay has 15 players on injured reserve, including key players like linebacker Nick Barnett, tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant. The Bears basically have avoided significant injuries this season.

And if that isn’t enough, the Bears also have effectively used a rotation to keep several players fresh. Chester Taylor has eased the workload of Matt Forte, and rookie Major Wright has eased the workload of Danieal Manning and Chris Harris. In addition, the Bears are getting quality snaps from seven defensive linemen.

“We’ve had the same schedule now as seasons where we’ve had a lot of injuries,” Smith said. “I think some years things go your way, and it’s gone our way this year.”

Harris admitted he wasn’t thrilled when he learned early in the season that Wright would take some of his snaps.

“But as the season went on, I think we all find it helpful,” said Harris, who leads the team with five interceptions. “It keeps you fresh out there on the field, so when those two-minute drives come up . . . you’re not dog-tired.”

Finally, the Bears can’t afford to slack off Sunday because neither the offense nor the defense is rolling right now.

The Bears’ pass defense leaves much to be desired, looking particularly vulnerable against the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Ironically, the offense lately has been playing more consistently than the defense, which carried the team earlier in the season.

‘There’s a lot on the line for us’

The most consistent unit has been special teams, but kicker Robbie Gould did snap a streak of 64 consecutive field goals made from distances inside of 40 yards.

The Bears are an impressive 7-1 since their bye week on Oct. 31, but it’s hardly been smooth sailing. After all, this is quarterback Jay Cutler’s first season in Mike Martz’s offense, and the offensive line doesn’t seem like a unit that can afford to miss a chance to work alongside one another.

“I think, naturally, you could let up a little bit if you weren’t playing for anything,” Smith said. “I’m talking about if you had home field wrapped up or there was nothing that you could gain from that last game.

“But for us, there’s just so much going on this week. . . . There’s a lot on the line for us, and we just want to continue to get better.”

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