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Bears vs. Vikings ‘meaningless’ finale could mean something

MinnesotVikings cornerback Marcus Sherels (35) gets tackled by Chicago Bears strong safety WinstVenable (49) first half an NFL football game

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Marcus Sherels (35) gets tackled by Chicago Bears strong safety Winston Venable (49) in the first half of an NFL football game in Minneapolis, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Andy King)

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Updated: January 1, 2012 1:28PM

Interest in ‘‘meaningless’’ games, such as Bears-Vikings on Sunday, is virtually nil. When Vikings coach Leslie Frazier called in for a teleconference with the Chicago media Wednesday, the media room at Halas Hall was dark. Not even Bears media-relations personnel were there to take the call.

It’s easy to scoff at games such as this one because, from our vantage point, very little good can happen. Josh McCown torching the 29th-ranked pass defense on a 3-12 team that has been out of the playoff hunt for most of the season can do more harm than good if it convinces the Bears they have their No. 2 quarterback for 2012. (Not that he can’t be, but his performance Sunday isn’t a reliable proving ground.)

But while you can’t judge anything from a meaningless season finale, you also can get burned by ignoring it totally. In 2000, Dick Jauron’s Bears played an inspired game against the Lions in the season finale at the Silverdome, winning 23-20. The Bears made the kinds of plays good teams make and got help from unlikely sources, like good teams do.

Retread cornerback R.W. McQuarters, not even a starter, returned an interception for a touchdown and had a huge sack that forced a fumble in the final minute to set up Paul Edinger’s game-winning 54-yard field goal. The winning quarterback was Cade McNown, who relieved injured starter Shane Matthews.

But it seemed like fool’s gold, especially coming a week after one of the most putrid performances in Bears history in a 17-0 loss to the 49ers. In that game, McNown and the offense never crossed the 50-yard line and the defense allowed Terrell Owens an NFL-record 20 receptions for 283 yards.

But it turned into something real the next season. In 2001, McQuarters kept making big plays as a starter and the Bears were the surprise team of the NFL, finishing 13-3 to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

So while the game Sunday won’t determine anything, I can’t dismiss coach Lovie Smith’s contention that what happens against the Vikings means something to him. He recalled a similar experience with the Buccaneers in 1998. The Bucs, a playoff team the previous season, were 7-8 and out of playoff contention — just like the Bears this season — and faced the Bengals, who were 3-12 — just like the Vikings this season — in Week 17. The Bucs won 35-0 and carried it over to the next season, when they went 11-5 and reached the NFC Championship Game.

‘‘This is the first game of the new year,’’ Smith said. ‘‘We can get things started off on the right track, and just to finish your season a certain way, playing a certain way. Every game you have, you find out something about your team. There are some things we can find out about this one — a division opponent, going on the road. We will know more about our football team after this game.’’

When somebody finally picked up Frazier’s call, the former Bears cornerback told a similar story.

‘‘That’s exactly [what] I talked to our team about this morning,’’ he said.

Frazier recalled the Bears beat the Packers to finish 8-8 in 1983, then went 10-6 and reached the NFC Championship Game the next season.

And as an assistant with the Eagles, he recalled the team beat the Patriots and the Super Bowl-bound Rams in the final two games of 1999, then went 11-5 the next season.

‘‘So there is meaning in how you finish the regular season,’’ Frazier said. ‘‘You like to have some momentum going into the offseason. It doesn’t always equate to success the next season, but it sure doesn’t hurt.’’

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