It’s been five years since John Fox entered the final week of the regular season without the playoffs as a motivation. But that hasn’t prevented the Bears coach from talking about them.
“He’s saying, ‘Don’t get used to the fact that we’re just playing a regular-season game and we’re done. This is totally not the norm,” rookie linebacker John Timu said. “Basically, he’s saying don’t get used to this. Don’t get used to playing 17 weeks.”
In a way, the Bears and Lions are playing to avoid last place in the NFC North. The best either team can finish is 7-9.
But the Bears insist that finding motivation for their regular-season finale Sunday against the Lions at Soldier Field comes in different forms.
Some point to their own game tapes — the yearly requirement to produce good results to keep an NFL career and dream alive.
“All 16 [games] are a job interview,” cornerback Tracy Porter said.
Rookies such as Timu, who was signed as an undrafted free agent, want to prove more to the coaching staff and feel confident heading into the offseason program.
“I just want to help this team get ‘W’s,’ ” Timu said.
Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, a proud veteran, will be damned if the Bears finish the season with double-digit losses.
“I’m a sore loser,” said McPhee, who was never part of a losing season in four years with the Ravens.
With a 1-6 record at Soldier Field, several players said giving fans a game to feel good about is a goal.
“Obviously, we want to end off with a bang,” Timu said. “We want make sure fans get something to cheer about. We’ve got great fans. They traveled with us to Tampa. They want to win. You can tell by how loud they were in Tampa. We want to protect our house in the new year.”
But all players point to Fox’s messages, the culture he’s been installing since the offseason program.
“This is unique in that you’re kind of finishing one season and beginning another year,” Fox said, “so how you finish is important.”
For the Bears, the vibe feels much different at Halas Hall than it did last season, when they limped into their season finale against the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Bears lost 13-9 and ended Marc Trestman’s two-year run with five consecutive losses.
Last week, the Bears were able to stop a three-game skid with a 26-21 victory against the Buccaneers. The win might not have meant much in the standings – it did in the draft order — but players say it was important.
“Finish strong,” defensive lineman Mitch Unrein said. “It’s to go out there and have the mindset that we’re building something here and to start it now. There’s no reason to wait until next year. It’s finish these last two games with victories.”
QB Jay Cutler
Cutler’s most efficient season of his career comes to a close against an opponent — the Lions — he’s historically fared well against.
RB Matt Forte
It might be his last hurrah with the Bears. Forte, 30, is averaging 98.1 yards from scrimmage this season.
LB Shea McClellin
It could also be McClellin’s last hurrah with the Bears, and he might not play. He’s still recovering from a concussion.
QB Matthew Stafford
The Lions lead the NFL in red-zone efficiency and Stafford is the main reason why. Detroit has scored 32 touchdowns in 47 red-zone possessions.
RB Theo Riddick
Riddick is a mismatch coming out of the backfield. He leads all running backs with 76 catches this season. His 668 receiving yards also are franchise-best mark.
DE Ziggy Ansah
The Lions’ top pass rusher, Ansah has reached new levels in his third season. He’s currently third in the NFL with 13 ½ sacks.
“He’s an unusual talent because he’s one of those guys that he’s faster than what you think. He’s much quicker than what you’d think, and he’s harder to tackle than what you’d think.” – Lions coach Jim Caldwell on Lions WR Golden Tate
Pat O’Donnell / No. 16 / Punter
The struggles of the Bears’ special teams this season will overshadow any positive, but coordinator Jeff Rodgers said punter Pat O’Donnell has had a good season.
O’Donnell, who is in his second season, has a 39.4 net punting average, which is 21st in the league. But it’s an improvement from last season’s 37.7 mark.
Overall, most of O’Donnell’s numbers have improved.
He has had 27 punts downed inside the 20-yard line after having 20 last season. He’s had 21 fair catches called for by opponents compared to 19. And opponents have only returned 27 of his punts after fielding 33 last season.
“Pat’s continued to improve,” Rodgers said. “Pat knows himself a lot better now than he did going into the year. There’s all kinds of different things those guys deal with, whether it’s the weather, the climate, the wind, kicking indoors, kicking outdoors, kicking from the right hash, punting to the right, punting to the left, from the far field, plus 50 [yards].”
“There’s a lot of different things that we ask those guys to do, and he realized he’s better at some things than others and really the second half of the season, you just kind of emphasize those things.”
Rodgers foresees bigger things for O’Donnell next year.
“It takes specialists several years to kind of find out who they are and what they do best, and then they kind of take off,” Rodgers said. “So we’re excited about Pat moving forward. I’d anticipate him playing better next year than he did this year, and he’s had a pretty solid year for us.”
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