MINNEAPOLIS — Now the hard work begins.
The Bears ended a five-game losing streak that crippled a promising season, edging the NFC North cellar-dwelling Vikings 17-13 on Sunday at the Metrodome and setting the stage for a pivotal offseason.
Coach Lovie Smith, signed to an extension Feb. 25, isn't going anywhere after an 8-8 season, the fourth in five years the Bears missed the playoffs. General manager Jerry Angelo is expected to return for a 12th season. Both men are signed through 2013.
The immediate questions are whether offensive coordinator Mike Martz and special teams coordinator Dave Toub will be back; both have expiring contracts. In the long term, the Bears must find ways to close the gap with the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, who completed a 15-1 season.
A season torn apart by injuries looked worse with 5:15 remaining when safety Major Wright collided with linebacker Brian Urlacher on an errant pass to Percy Harvin in the end zone. Urlacher was in pain and limped off the field, and the Bears announced afterward he had a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Smith, who fumed when asked about Martz's future Wednesday, is expected to address the topic soon. He didn't publicly back his longtime friend in the last week.
"We are going to enjoy this win and go back (Monday) and start the evaluation process and see what we need to do to take that next step and to get back where we belong," said Smith, who will make his end-of-season address Monday at Halas Hall. "It is not a whole lot of fun finishing up your season and knowing that, but we are a good team and we are going to try and keep as many of our coaches and players as possible together.
"We don't want to tear this team down and start over. This is a good team, and we are going to win a lot of games with this core remaining the same."
That's not necessarily an endorsement of Martz. But the offense was clicking, averaging 32 points in a five-game winning streak, when quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a broken thumb Nov. 20 against the Chargers. The season quickly slipped away, even more so after running back Matt Forte was lost to a knee injury Dec. 4.
The Bears mustered 92 rushing yards on 25 carries Sunday against predominantly eight-man fronts — as they'd faced from the previous five opponents — to finish with 2,015, just the second time since 1990 they rushed for 2,000. But the Vikings (3-13) racked up seven sacks, 3½ by Jared Allen, and the Bears allowed 49 for the season and 105 in two years under Martz's direction.
Allen finished with 22 sacks, a Vikings record and one-half sack short of Michael Strahan's NFL record. The Bears resorted to triple-teaming him in the second half after he worked over left tackle J'Marcus Webb, who declined to talk afterward.
"He gets paid," Allen said of Webb. "They should have given him less help. At the end, I was like, 'Come on, really? Now?' "
Quarterback Josh McCown made enough plays against the league's worst pass defense, directing a 90-yard drive that culminated in a 22-yard touchdown pass to Roy Williams that pulled the Bears within 10-7 early in the second quarter. In the next minute, cornerback Charles Tillman intercepted a Christian Ponder pass that went off the hands of running back Toby Gerhart and returned it 22 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Robbie Gould added a 27-yard field goal, and the Bears stepped up on special teams. Julius Peppers blocked a 48-yard field-goal attempt by Ryan Longwell, and a 41-yard try never happened after the Vikings' Matt Katula botched the snap.
The Bears knocked out Ponder with a hip pointer on a big hit from defensive end Israel Idonije, and Gerhart, spelling the injured Adrian Peterson, left with a sprained MCL in his left knee. Backup quarterback Joe Webb provided a spark, but Tim Jennings picked him off and D.J. Moore's interception with 26 seconds remaining sealed the victory.
Players contend the Bears have the right mix for a championship team. The franchise could be headed into an aggressive offseason led by Angelo. First, Smith has to make a choice with Martz.
"You know things are going to change, and we hope not many," center Roberto Garza said. "We feel we have a good offense, feel we can go out there and move the ball. If we can keep that continuity going, that would be great."
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