With nothing to lose, Lions could be dangerous

If Bears don't make them pack it in early, regular-season finale could turn tense

Chicago Tribune sports columnist Steve Rosenbloom discusses Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith's future as the head of the team. (Posted Dec. 26, 2012)

The Week 17 opponent playing out the schedule can be both fragile and dangerous.

Most players are counting the days until the final exit meeting Monday morning with team doctors and coaches before they can get out of town.

That last game? Just get through it, do your best to stay healthy and jump in the car Monday, headed to your offseason home. It doesn't matter if it's a three-hour or 12-hour drive because leaving that rotten season behind feels pretty darn good.

After a year that failed to meet expectations, the final matchup is a formality. It's on the schedule and you have to play it, but winning does nothing in a business that is playoffs or bust.

Take the 2012 Lions. A team with some real talent has seen the wheels come off with seven losses in a row and a 4-11 record. It's a disastrous season after a playoff appearance in 2011.

Will they play hard Sunday against the Bears at Ford Field? Sure they will — for a while.

I've been in this situation with Steve Spurrier's Redskins in 2003. We were 5-10 after a 3-1 start that included a victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots. But once the season started going south, it spiraled out of control.

On that final night at FedEx Field versus Donovan McNabb and the Eagles, we prepared to win. Sure, we couldn't wait to get this thing over with and move on to the offseason; however, we thought there was a chance to knock off the playoff-bound Eagles.

Our game plan was exotic. Reverses, gimmicks on special teams, no fear on fourth down and a nothing-to-lose mentality.

Well, that lasted for about one quarter until the Eagles poured it on and erased any ideas we had of pulling off the upset.

The final score was 31-7, but it could have been 60-7 if Andy Reid had wanted to run it up. We even had a couple of guys who weren't dressed who ducked out at halftime.

Maybe they wanted to beat the traffic on the Beltway. Or maybe they wanted to grab something to eat. Regardless, that night was a mess. A fitting end to a lousy year.

The Bears could be walking into a similar situation against the Lions. Give them a chance to breathe or allow them to think they can hang around, and the game will be competitive.

Calvin Johnson already has broken Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season, but he needs 108 yards to reach 2,000. That's a record that could stand for a long time.

The Bears safeties better get their butts deep — real deep. Don't allow Matthew Stafford to turn this into a sandlot game in which he can throw it up to Johnson all afternoon.

And the rest of the team has to be on alert for something unexpected on almost every snap. Maybe it's an onside kick to open the game or second half, a reverse pass, a fake punt, a fake field goal or the offense staying on the field on fourth-and-7 at their 35.

Hey, why not? The Lions aren't playing for their postseason lives as the Bears are. Win this game, and they still go home Monday. Nothing will change.

If the Bears lose this game, however, everything could change, from the coaching staff to the veterans in the locker room. No one will be safe.

I know the Bears need the Packers to beat the Vikings on Sunday to grab a ticket to the playoffs, but that late afternoon game means nothing if Lovie Smith's team doesn't handle its business first.

Make the Lions pack it in. That's the goal. Because if the Bears don't, there could be some nervous faces on the sideline in the second half.

Twitter @MattBowen41

Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety. You also can find his work at nationalfootballpost.com.

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