Subs sandwiched
Thomas Jones got his 1,300 yards. The defense failed to get its franchise record or even hold its No. 1 ranking for yards allowed.

And offensive lineman Lennie Friedman took snaps at defensive tackle.

That's all you need to know about the Bears' 34-10 loss to Minnesota on Sunday at the Metrodome, a game that had to be played but took a back seat to issues like health and rest.

With the NFC North title and a first-round playoff bye already in hand, the Bears deactivated five defensive and two offensive starters, had Rex Grossman in a baseball cap and removed most of the other starters well before halftime.

Clearly, the goals are more long-term than a pleasant finish to a surprising season.

As it stands, the Bears' 11-5 record marked just the second time since 1991 they've finished with double-digit victories. And coaches and players remained adamant about who owns the NFL's best defense, even if Tampa Bay ended up yielding fewer yards.

"I think it's obvious who the best defense in the league is," coach Lovie Smith said. "We know that we are. We'll get a chance to show what kind of team we are in that playoff game."

Added Brian Urlacher: "I think we know we're No. 1."

Using reserves and different lineup combinations, the Bears surrendered season highs of 396 yards and 34 points. Minnesota's scoring barrage prevented the Bears from breaking the 1986 team's franchise record of 187 points allowed.

But the Bears still led the league in fewest points surrendered, and that total of 202 stands as the franchise's third lowest since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

"Some of the things that we accomplished are going to be overshadowed by what happened [Sunday]," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "And that's disappointing. But the truth is we have bigger fish to fry, and that's the playoffs."

Smith called the decision to rest Grossman and start Kyle Orton an easy one and sounded like a broken record when explaining why.

"What's important is that playoff game," Smith said. "Rex will be behind the center of that playoff game. That's an exciting thing."

Grossman said he understood the decision and would have liked to play merely because he loves football, not because he wanted to exorcise demons from his last visit here. That's when he tore a knee ligament in September 2004.

"I'm not sure what a quarter would've done to help us win a game two weeks from now," Grossman said.

The Bears actually led 3-0.

Scoring on their opening possession for the second straight Sunday and just the third time this season, Orton directed a 13-play, 63-yard drive that ended with Robbie Gould's 22-yard field goal.

Big plays included Orton hitting Justin Gage for 9 yards to—gasp—convert a third down and a well-executed fake punt on which Brad Maynard passed to Adrian Peterson for 18 yards.

Minnesota tied it when Paul Edinger kicked a 54-yard field goal on the second play of the second quarter.