Cutler: Healthy Bears 'full go' with NFC's No. 1 seed still possible

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If the Chicago Bears indeed plan to rest this week, they're not saying. In fact, quarterback Jay Cutler insists the opposite is true.

Not only will key players play at Green Bay on Sunday, he said, but the Bears (11-4) are going all in even though they already have a first-round bye.

Cutler, whose season includes a concussion, said he expects to play a full game against the Packers.

"(Coach Lovie Smith) said prior to that game that we're going to be playing, we're going to be going and we're going to be full go on Sunday," Cutler said. "So that's what we expect."

Smith said the Bears "realize the importance of the game" and that they "want to go into the playoffs on a high," but he wouldn't say how long he plans to stick with his top players.

One possible consideration: the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC. The Bears have a slim shot but would need a win and plenty of help to get it.

The Atlanta Falcons would have to lose to the Carolina Panthers, with the New Orleans Saints losing to or tying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both those games will be held earlier in the day, meaning the Bears figure to know by the time they take the field if they're still in the running, and if they somehow wound up with the top seed, that would be another huge break for a team already with its share.

Chicago got one when the Minnesota Vikings beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday, giving the Bears the bye, but it wasn't the first this season.

There was Calvin Johnson's touchdown-catch-that-wasn't in the opener, when a rules technicality wiped out what looked like the go-ahead TD for the Detroit Lions and preserved a 19-14 win. The Bears also have faced their share of weaker opponents and third-string quarterbacks during a season-saving 7-1 run, and they've stayed remarkably healthy this season.

Throw in the return to Pro Bowl form of Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester, the addition of Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, the adjustments Chicago made during its off week, and it's all added up to this: The Bears are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 team made the Super Bowl, with a week off to rest.

"You probably could take a poll in this room right now, and how many people would have picked Minnesota over Philly?" Cutler said. "So anything can happen in this league. We know that."

The Bears could become the first team to sweep the division since 1987, when the NFC North was the Central. That would go a long way toward keeping the rival Packers out of the playoffs, although Green Bay could get in with a loss or tie if several other scenarios unfold in their favor.

"We've asked our players to get better every week," Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "That's how we coach and that's how we play, and that's what we're going to try to do this week. This is a very important game for us, pure and simple."

With a bye locked up in 2005, the Bears rested quarterback Rex Grossman and other players in the final regular-season game and lost to the Vikings, then was knocked out by the Panthers at home in the playoffs. The following year, Chicago rested players in a loss to Green Bay but squeaked by the Seattle Seahawks in overtime at Soldier Field on its way to the Super Bowl.

Smith said the circumstances are different this time. For one, the Bears are healthier.

"Going back to '05, we had injured players," the coach said. "Most of you reported that we pulled our guys. Even for this game, if there's someone that's a little banged up, we're not going to put him at risk. That was the case in '05; we had a lot of guys that were banged up. But that's not the case with this group right now. We're in pretty good shape. ... Sixteenth game of the season, we're trying to get a win."

Smith said wins by Atlanta or New Orleans wouldn't affect how long he keeps his top players in Sunday's game.

"None of that has anything to do with what we're doing," the coach said. "We're playing the game. This is the last team on our schedule. We had planned on playing them the entire time."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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