LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Bears coach Lovie Smith considers a potential first-round bye in the playoffs “another chance to take another big step.”
But Smith can’t dismiss the small chance for a slip-and-fall situation, induced partially by the layoff entering the playoffs coming as reward for earning one of the conference’s top two seeds.
Although the Bears haven’t yet clinched the No. 2 seed for the postseason they covet, the team’s plan is to do so Sunday against the Packers at Lambeau Field, if they can’t clinch Tuesday night by virtue of a Minnesota Vikings victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
“We would like to get the bye. That’s what we’re playing for,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things to play for. We realize some things could happen, and we could have the bye before then. We’re not thinking that way. We feel like we have to beat the Packers to accomplish our regular-season goals, and that’s what we’re going to work to do.”
Should the Bears seize the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs, it’s difficult to predict how the club would handle the first-round bye. Historically, the Bears would be in good shape, considering No. 2 seeds since 1990 in both the AFC and NFC have a combined record of 29-11 coming off a first-round bye. In the NFC, the No. 2 seed has posted a 15-5 record since 1990 in their first game of the playoffs coming off a bye.
Smith, however, hasn’t been as successful. At the same time, the coach’s body of work isn’t as extensive, obviously, since Smith’s Bears have advanced to the playoffs just twice in his tenure.
The Bears clinched a first-round bye in 2005, and rested starters for the season finale at Minnesota, which resulted in a 23-10 loss. Coming off the first-round bye, the Bears sputtered in the divisional round at Soldier Field against the Carolina Panthers.
BYE WEEK BREAKDOWN
Here's a quick look at how No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have done following their playoff bye weeks. The data dates back to the 1990 playoffs when the league expanded to its current 12-team playoff format.
Panthers receiver Steve Smith racked up 12 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns, as the Bears fell behind 13-0, and never recovered in a disappointing 29-21 loss. That season, the Bears posted an 11-5 record.
“I think we kept the pedal down then,” Smith said. “In ’05, we lost. In ’06, we went through the same schedule and we won. Either way, you can get the job done. I think the ’06 team was better, and that’s why we won.”
Certainly, that could’ve been the case. The Bears closed the 2006 regular season at Green Bay, and lost 26-7 with Smith resting some of the club’s starters.
Smith didn’t mention how the 2006 team also struggled in its return from the first-round bye, needing two fourth-quarter defensive stops and a Robbie Gould 49-yard field goal in overtime to best the Seattle Seahawks 27-24 at Soldier Field.
One hundred and six days prior to that outing, the Bears had blasted those same Seahawks 37-6.
But shaky past experiences won’t diminish the importance of Sunday’s game at Green Bay, even if the team clinches the No. 2 seed before the weekend. Smith said the plan is to proceed as if the game Sunday determines whether the Bears receive a first-round bye.
“If nothing was on the line, it would still be a big game,” safety Chris Harris said. “Anytime we play the Packers it’s a big game. It’s a huge rivalry, one of the oldest in football. We would still want to play, even if Philly was to lose Tuesday [allowing the Bears to clinch the first-round bye]. I don’t see that happening, but we would still want to play. One of Lovie’s goals when he came here No. 1 was beat Green Bay, No. 2 win the division, No. 3 win the Super Bowl. So we’ve got a chance to sweep the division, which is huge.”
Harris went on to say, a potential first-round bye is “very important. It’s an automatic win. You advance to the second round; that’s how we look at it. You get a win without even having to play. It gives guys who have a bruise here and there time to rest so we can make this push.”
Beating the Packers, and preventing them from reaching the postseason “would be even nicer than us going to the playoffs,” said running back Matt Forte, who needs 22 rushing yards to reach 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season.
Forte pointed to the team’s Oct. 31 bye in stating his case for a Bears first-round bye in the playoffs. The Bears captured five consecutive wins after the Oct. 31 bye, and would need just two wins after a postseason bye to reach the Super Bowl.
“If we have the bye week [in the playoffs], as long as we focus during that, and not get complacent, just saying that we’ve got a bye week and taking it easy, [we’ll be fine]. This is the playoffs so we’ve got to take it seriously.”
In the 10 seasons from 2000 to 2009, four No. 2 seeds from both conferences (2001 Patriots, 2002 Buccaneers, 2004 Patriots and 2008 Steelers) advanced to the Super Bowl, and each of them walked away with the Lombardi Trophy.
Teams seeded first or second have won six of the last 10 Super Bowls. But teams seeded No. 3 or below -- who didn’t receive first-round byes -- have won three of the last five title games, and four of those 10 championships.
The reality is that seeding, ultimately, won’t matter once the postseason starts.
The Bears knew coming into the season that their best chance for another shot at a title was to improve gradually, and peak at the ideal time, which seems to be what they’ve done. Other than a 36-7 debacle against the Patriots, the Bears have rolled since their Oct. 31 bye, winning seven of eight, in addition to lighting up the scoreboard for 78 points over the past two weeks.
“It does help you keep that same focus of playing your best ball [with the No. 2 seed still undecided]. 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 you could gain from that last game. Some teams could let that hold them back a little bit. For us, there’s just so much going on this week. We have to play our best ball this week in Game 16. We just want to continue getting better. You see the steps that we’ve taken, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and our special teams. I know we’re going to have to get it back defensively.”
“We realize the rivalry [between the Bears and Packers], but it’s really just about us playing our best ball,” Smith added. “And if something unfortunate happens to them, I mean, so be it. Our motivation is to win a world championship.”