As much as Bears coach Lovie Smith wants the sole focus Sunday to be on winning strictly for winning's sake, there are players who will be auditioning for jobs next season.
That starts in the backfield with quarterback Josh McCown and running back Kahlil Bell, both of whom were afterthoughts a little over a month ago, but will play key roles Sunday against the Vikings. McCown was coaching a high school football team and Bell was buried on the depth chart behind 2011 Pro Bowl pick Matt Forte and backup Marion Barber.
But McCown and Bell will be on center stage Sunday at noon in the Metrodome against the Vikings, a week after both brightened their futures with their performances in a 35-21 loss to the Packers.
"It is not an audition time," Smith insisted.
But it is evaluation time, and there's nothing left after Sunday's game except next season.
"Some of the guys that played well last week, you want to see them do it again, just to confirm what we saw from that one game," Smith admitted. "And it's not just guys like that. For veteran players, you want to see them perform a certain way. You can tell a lot when playoffs and all that have gone by the wayside. You can tell a lot about how guys fight just because you're competing. It should be like that. I think I have an idea though how the guys will play."
McCown believes if he performs his assignments, the future will take care of itself.
"I'm just looking at winning," he said. "You want to finish strong and, if you're a competitor, you just want to win. So that's my goal, and generally, especially at this position, if you play well, you put yourself and your team in a position to win, and all the other stuff takes care of itself."
While McCown just wants to prolong an NFL career that was on hiatus for nearly two years, Bell is looking to elevate his status on a full-time basis, not just when someone in front of him is injured.
"I'm not interested in that," he said of a backup position. "I never woke up in the morning and said, 'I'm going out here to work to be the No. 2 running back' for any team that I have ever been on. My goal is to be a starter in this league and that is what I'm shooting for. I'm not settling for anything else than that."
SERIES HISTORY: 101st regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 52-46-2. The Bears have won the last four meetings by a combined score of 142-67, including 39-10 in Week 6.
--The future of offensive coordinator Mike Martz is apparently off limits.
When Bears coach Lovie Smith was asked about it after Wednesday's practice inside the Walter Payton Center, he was clearly annoyed and answered the question with a question: "What kind of question is that anyway, at this time?" Smith said. "What kind of question is that? Why would you ask a question like that anyway?"
The obvious reply is: "To get an honest answer."
But that's not happening at Halas Hall -- at least not for now.
The bottom line is, if Smith had already decided he wanted Martz back for next season, he would have said so. The absence of a vote of confidence is not a good sign for Martz. It doesn't necessarily mean that he won't be back, but more and more, it appears to be a probability.
"Obviously I would sure like to be back," Martz said. "I think all of that stuff works out. This is going to be a great football team, and I would like to be a part of it. We'll just see how it works out. We'll address that when the season is over."
If Martz has received any indication one way or the other from Smith regarding his future employment, he's not saying.
"All of those kinds of things I would never discuss," Martz said. "It is what it is. I've addressed it and I like it here. Hopefully, it works out."
At the time of quarterback Jay Cutler's season-ending thumb injury on Nov. 20, the Bears were 16th in total yards, 14th in rushing yards, 22nd in passing yards and No. 6 in scoring. After five games without Cutler, the Bears are now 20th in total yards, eighth in rushing yards, 26th in passing yards and 16th in scoring.
After Cutler was lost, Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte played just one more full game until he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Early in Week 15, leading receiver Johnny Knox was eliminated with a season-ending back injury. Cutler's injury came in the Bears' fifth straight victory; since then they've lost five straight. His loss was the beginning of the end for the Bears.
"We were just getting kind of rolling," Martz said. "You've got to feel that way to some extent."
Martz was asked if the Bears' injury situation should be taken into account when deciding his future.
"I'm not going to get into all of that stuff," he said. "I'm not going to discuss anything like that."
But Martz believes that progress was being made before the rash of injuries hit.
"We were getting better every week," he said. "I thought we were doing a good job. But that just happens. You just have to move on."
Maybe that's what Lovie Smith and the Bears are already telling Martz.
--Special teams coordinator Dave Toub gets to see his ace coverage guy, Corey Graham, play in the Pro Bowl in February, but return specialist Devin Hester lost out to Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson.
"I was shocked," Toub said. "(Hester) had a great year, three returns (for touchdowns) and he had one on kickoff return and two on punt return. The fact that he did both, I thought he should (have gone). I'm not taking anything away from Peterson because he is a great punt returner, no question."
Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns this season.
--Matt Forte was voted to his first Pro Bowl this week, but teammates believe he has been playing at a high level since he was drafted in the second round out of Tulane in 2008.
"Since he stepped into a Bears uniform he's been like that," center Roberto Garza said. "He's been a Pro Bowl player, been a guy that can do it all. He can pass protect, run the ball, catch the ball, and he's a smart guy who brings a lot of energy to this team. He goes out there and puts on his helmet and goes to work every single day, so he's definitely one of the team leaders and one of the guys that we look to on the offensive side."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- The Bears are currently on a five-game losing streak, which immediately followed a five-game win streak, the first time that's happened in franchise history.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Honestly, my prayer is that I don't get relaxed. I really want to keep that edge because I think there was a lot of good that came from some of that anxiety." -- Bears QB Josh McCown on being able to relax in his second start this week. Prior to last week, his previous start was four years ago.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LG Edwin Williams, who will start his seventh straight game on Sunday, signed a two-year contract extension Wednesday.
Williams, who was signed to the practice squad early last season after being cut by the Redskins, started three games at right guard last season. This season he stepped in after Chris Williams (no relation) suffered a season-ending dislocation of his left wrist and has performed well enough to be considered a candidate for a full-time starting job next season. Edwin Williams has added value because he can play center, where he started for three years at Maryland.
--DE Julius Peppers has seven sacks in eight career games against the Vikings, including two in Week 6. Peppers (rest) did not practice Wednesday but will play Sunday.
--WR Devin Hester has averaged 16.3 yards and scored three touchdowns on 23 career punt returns vs. the Vikings. He has also averaged 29.1 yards on 20 career kickoff returns vs. Minnesota, including a 98-yard TD in Week 6. Hester (ankle) was limited on Wednesday but is expected to play Sunday.
--LB Brian Urlacher has eight of his 41.5 career sacks in 20 games vs. the Vikings, plus 194 tackles and three interceptions. Urlacher (knee) did not practice Wednesday but will play Sunday.
--RB Kahlil Bell has 186 rushing yards on 38 carries (4.9-yard average) in the past two games, seventh most in the NFL during that time.
--PK Robbie Gould has the five most accurate field-goal kicking seasons in franchise history.
--RB Marion Barber (calf) did not practice Wednesday.
--TE Kellen Davis (ill) didn't practice Wednesday but is expected to play Sunday.
--LB Nick Roach (shin) was limited on Wednesday but should play Sunday.
--OG Chris Spencer (back) was limited but should play.
--DE Corey Wootton (concussion) was limited and is day to day.
GAME PLAN: The Bears ran the ball 42 times last week, but they faced little resistance against the Packers' defense. The Vikings' run defense is much more stout, but the Bears still know they must run first before they can expect No. 3 quarterback Josh McCown to throw effectively. But McCown provided reason for hope last week, showing nice touch and an excellent pocket presence, which enabled him to escape unsacked and allowed him to pick up positive yardage when pressured. Even without Matt Forte, who is on injured reserve and possibly without Marion Barber (calf), the Bears are confident putting the running game in the hands of Kahlil Bell, who rushed for 121 yards last week.
Defensively, the Bears' job will be much easier with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson out. Even with Peterson in the lineup in Week 6, the Bears were able to control the Vikings' ground game. But the Bears' pass rush has been inconsistent, and it was shredded by Aaron Rodgers last week.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bears LT J'Marcus Webb vs. Vikings Pro Bowl DRE Jared Allen, who leads the NFL with 18.5 sacks.
Bears Pro Bowl CB Charles Tillman vs. Vikings WR Devin Aromashodu, a Bear for three years before he was cut and signed with Minnesota.