"They were better than us today with that group they had against our group," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "They kept their (starting) players in there the entire time."
The only real losers were the 64,023 who paid money to watch the Bears playing to avoid injury and the 9-7 Vikings futilely playing to save coach Mike Tice's job.
While the Vikings await word of a new head coach, the Bears prepare for the weekend of Jan. 14-15, when they will either play the No. 3 seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the winner of the No. 4 New York Giants-No. 5 Carolina Panthers game, whoever is the higher seed. The Bears beat the Bucs 13-10 at Tampa on Nov. 27, a week after they defeated the Panthers 13-3 at Soldier Field. They didn't play the Giants in the regular season.
By removing almost every starter long before halftime, the Bears passed on the opportunity to achieve some team goals that weren't as important as being healthy when they host a divisional-round playoff game in two weekends.
They needed to hold the Vikings to 18 points or fewer to better the franchise record of 187 points allowed by the 1986 team, and they needed to hold Minnesota to 330 yards of total offense to finish ahead of the Bucs and lead the NFL in fewest yards allowed. They failed on both accounts, permitting a season-worst 396 yards, punctuated by Michael Bennett's 61-yard TD run with 5:10 remaining. The Bears did lead the NFL in fewest points allowed, permitting 202, 45 less than the second-place Colts.
With rookie Kyle Orton (6 of 14 for 59 yards) back in the starting lineup in place of Grossman, the Bears accumulated just 171 yards of total offense through three quarters, and although Jeff Blake directed a cosmetic 59-yard TD drive in the fourth quarter, they still finished with just 251 yards.
"There are a couple of things we wanted to accomplish," Smith said. "No. 1 was the (defensive) scoring record, but not as much as we wanted to (avoid the) risk of injury to some of our players. I think it is obvious who the best defense in the league is. We know that we are. Stats don't say it right now, but we think we know who it is. We will get a chance to show what type of team we have in the playoff game."
Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera also considers his group the best in the NFL, and he pointed out that while the first team was in during the first quarter, the Vikings managed just 44 yards and no points.
"The guys would have loved to have this feather in their cap," Rivera said of the No. 1 ranking in yards allowed. "But the truth is, we do have a bigger fish to fry, and that's the playoffs. We did some things to take care of some guys (with minor injuries), and we asked the young guys to give their best effort, and unfortunately it didn't work out that way. We just didn't get the job done and that's disappointing.
"I think, though, that some of the things that we accomplished are going to be overshadowed by what happened today, and that's disappointing. I'm disappointed for the guys because they played hard and they gave us the best shot."
A more telling stat might be yards allowed per play, and even with their high yield against the Vikings, the Bears' defense still permitted just 4.36 yards per play this season, significantly better than the Bucs' 4.67.
And the Bears did manage to get running back Thomas Jones the 27 yards he needed to become the second player in team history to rush for 1,300 yards in a season. Walter Payton did it nine times.
Other than Jones' 62 yards on 12 carries, the Bears' offensive highpoint was an 18-yard pass by Brad Maynard to Adrian Peterson out of punt formation on fourth-and-1 on their first possession. It set up Robbie Gould's 22-yard field goal 7:34 into the game that put the Bears ahead 3-0.
Former Bear Paul Edinger nailed a line-drive 54-yard field goal to give the Vikings a tie on the second play of the second quarter. Gould responded with a 52-yarder that would have been the longest of his career, but it was nullified by a holding penalty on guard Roberto Garza.
Before the Bears scored again, on a 4-yard pass from Blake to Justin Gage (team-best 6 catches and 67 yards), the Vikings rolled up 27 unanswered points.