The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions have nothing left to play for but pride in the regular season finale. Bears coach Lovie Smith might have a little more at stake.
Smith could use another strong showing from his team Sunday in Detroit to bolster his chances of returning next season.
Chicago (6-9) will miss the playoffs for the third straight time since its Super Bowl run in 2006, which ended with a 29-17 loss to Indianapolis.
At best, the Bears are looking at their second 7-9 finish in the past three years under Smith, who is 51-44 since taking over in 2004. At worst, they'll have their first 10-loss season since finishing 5-11 in Smith's first year.
A 36-30 overtime win Monday night over NFC North champion Minnesota might have helped turn fortunes in the coach's favor. Beleaguered quarterback Jay Cutler, who has an NFL-worst 26 interceptions, matched a career high with four touchdown passes, including a 39-yard strike to Devin Aromashodu for the deciding points.
"I think the game made a statement about our Football team and where we are and what we can be in the future, no more than that,'' Smith said. "As a football coach your job is at stake every day you go to work. ... It's like that with everyone. I realize where I am and where we are. It's been a disappointing season and I'm the head football coach."
The thrilling victory came one week after general manager Jerry Angelo's tepid response to questions of whether Smith would return. The coach knows nothing is assured even if his team beats the Lions (2-13) for the fourth straight time.
"I'm confident that I'll be coaching (against) the Detroit Lions this week, and that's about as far as you need to go," he said. "You coach and you work that day. You don't look any farther than that, and it's been that way for me since I've been here. Nothing has changed."
The Bears will play the finale without starting cornerback Charles Tillman, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday after breaking his ribs in Monday's win. The statuses of defensive back/kick returner Danieal Manning and wide receiver Johnny Knox, who scored on a 102-yard kickoff return in a 48-24 Home win over Detroit on Oct. 4, are also unknown.
Knox was carted off the field after injuring his ankle, while Manning has a strained calf - the same injury that's kept wide receiver Devin Hester out of the past three games. Hester's is also uncertain for Sunday.
If neither receiver can play, the burden might fall on Matt Forte to carry the Bears to another win over Detroit. The second-year running back's only 100-yard effort of the season came in the October meeting, when he ran for 121 yards and a touchdown. However, he managed only 36 yards on 15 carries in last season's visit to Ford Field.
Despite being plagued by a sophomore slump, Forte is 172 yards from reaching 1,000 after compiling 1,238 as a rookie.
Cutler threw for a modest 141 yards in the victory over the Lions earlier this season, but with two touchdowns and no interceptions - one of his three games without a pick since joining the Bears.
While the Lions will conclude this season with a better record than last season's 0-16 debacle, Detroit would like to avoid finishing it with a sixth straight loss.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz could look to veteran Daunte Culpepper again after giving Drew Stanton his first career start at quarterback in last week's 20-6 loss at San Francisco. Culpepper entered that game in the fourth quarter after Stanton threw his third interception and finished 7 of 12 for 51 yards.
"We're not going to make a decision based on getting a better look at a guy - we'll make the decision based on who helps our offense and who gives us the best chance at winning the game," Schwartz said. "In the last few games, our quarterbacks have not played well."
Culpepper hasn't started against the Bears since a 28-3 loss with Minnesota on Oct. 16, 2005. He's 5-7 lifetime versus Chicago.
Culpepper also replaced No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford, who underwent minor surgery on his right knee earlier this week and will not play Sunday, in the fourth quarter of the October loss to the Bears.
The Bears are trying to snap a five-game road losing streak.