As they prepare for Sunday's game at Lambeau Field, the Chicago Bears should have only one goal in mind: What's best for them.
They owe nothing to the teams whose playoff chances will be impacted by Sunday's result.
There should be no service to the spirit of their 89-year rivalry with the Green Bay Packers.
They should have no concerns about facing the Packers in the playoffs a few weeks from now.
If the Bears heed any siren but their own, they would fall victim to the cardinal rule of competition: Take care of yourself first, last and at all times in between.
So what is best for the Bears this weekend? Let's examine that question from several angles, culling thoughts from players, coaches, blog readers and your friendly neighborhood blogger.
There is an outside possibility that the Bears will take the field Sunday with a chance to clinch the NFC's No. 1 seed in the playoffs. (They would need losses by the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints to have that opportunity.) If not, the outcome won't impact the Bears' playoff positioning at all.
In that case, should the Bears protect their star players from injury? Quarterback Jay Cutler told reporters Wednesday that he expects to play the entire game, and Bears coach Lovie Smith said: "We're playing to win."
Smith wasn't clear on how he will pursue that goal. In 2005, you might recall, Smith deactivated seven starters, benched quarterback Rex Grossman and limited his other prominent players during a meaningless regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears lost 34-10 and, for what it's worth, were defeated by the Carolina Panthers two weeks later in the divisional playoff round.
Will Smith follow a similar strategy this Sunday if the Falcons clinch the No. 1 seed? Spazzymcgee58 wrote: "This is the biggest rivalry in the history of the NFL and for anyone to say that either team has nothing to play for is ridiculous. If Lovie sat his starters I would hope Bears fans would be outraged (and I'm a Packer fan)."
Smith would be foolish to craft a strategy around this rivalry, however. Prudence, not pride, is what wins Super Bowls.
The Bears are 7-1 over the past two months. Smith's only goal should be to maintain that momentum. That's where receiver Devin Hester landed when reporters asked him this week.
"Knowing that we've got a bye week the following week," Hester said, "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."
Plus, as Les_ Grossman noted, the Bears are hardly a finished product: "CHI should 'play to win' if not simply for the fact that they are still learning Martz's offense. Every game offers an opportunity for some much-needed growth on offense. ... This is good opportunity to play a great defense, something CHI will be seeing more of in the playoffs."
To me, the answer is simple: Play a regular game with your regular players and use it as a dry run for the playoffs. Don't unnecessarily push injured players in the name of a divisional rivalry, however, and if a player gets banged up during the game, yank him without delay.
Erhancoc noted that the Bears have been relatively injury-free this season and asked: "Why push your luck for a meaningless win?" But I wouldn't call Sunday's game meaningless. It can benefit the Bears if they use it the right way.
Eliminating the Packers
National observers have labeled the Packers as the proverbial team you "don't want to see in the playoffs." So should the Bears go all-out to remove the Packers as a possible impediment on their way to the Super Bowl?
Square1287 noted the obvious: This question won't be relevant if the Falcons clinch the No. 1 seed as expected. If the Packers get into the playoffs, they will first play the Philadelphia Eagles and then the Falcons. In that scenario, the Bears wouldn't face the Packers until the NFC Championship Game, which would be played at Soldier Field.
The Bears would face a difficult opponent in that game regardless. There seems to be no excessive need for the Bears to eliminate the Packers from the playoffs. That goal shouldn't drive the Bears' thinking at all.
The final word
I liked the way Packers coach Mike McCarthy termed this entire conversation.
"That's a polluted mindset," McCarthy said. "That's what I told the team [Wednesday]. Leave the pollution outside the doors. We're focused on beating whoever comes out that gate on Sunday. They are going to have white jerseys on and we're going after them. That's our mindset."
If it were up to me, the Bears would play an inspired, 60-minute game Sunday. But it wouldn't be to beat the Packers, nor to finish the season undefeated in the division nor to provide an honest competition for a team that stands to get into the playoffs if the Packers lose.
To me, it should be because championship teams always try to win. Motives might not matter to you in this conversation, but ultimately I think they do. To me, it's healthy for the Bears to view this game through the prism of a playoff run. It's a distraction if they get sidetracked by rivalries and pride.
I won't bore you with past results of those teams that rested their starters at the end of seasons and those who didn't. I just think it makes intuitive sense for a team like the Bears, who have been on the rise for the entire second half of the season, to maintain their direction. They should manage their current injuries but not be afraid of new ones. They should play to win for themselves -- and nothing else.