CHICAGO – The Bears’ 9-1 record should speak volumes.

But several players think their national reputation could use some sprucing up with a victory Sunday against the New England Patriots.

“It’s another statement game for us,” cornerback Nathan Vasher said Thursday. “It seems like every week people have questions about who we play, how we beat them or something else. But we don’t make the schedule. We just try to win the ballgame.”

The three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots (7-3) are three-point favorites, adding to the Rodney Dangerfield effect among the Bears.

“We’ve won nine games,” veteran offensive guard Ruben Brown said. “It may not be against the competition that the experts think we should be facing. But regardless of who we’re playing, we have to win. We know New England is a big-time team, but we have to get to 10 wins.”

The Bears, whose record matches the Indianapolis Colts’ for the best in the NFL, could clinch the NFC North with a victory Sunday and losses or ties by Minnesota and Green Bay.

“Regardless of what happens to everyone else, we need to focus on ourselves and do the best we can to win our football game,” said running back Thomas Jones, who rushed for a season-high 121 yards on 23 carries last week against the Jets.

Jones returned to the practice field Thursday, saying his slightly pulled groin felt “fine.” He acknowledged the challenge the Bears face.

“The Patriots have a great defense and a great team,” Jones said. “They’re one of the most respected teams in the league. It’s a challenge for us. We feel we are one of the best teams in the league, too.”

Jones has four 100-yard rushing efforts in his last six games. But the Patriots rank fourth in the NFL in total defense.

“They have a lot of guys who’ve played together for a while,” Jones said. “They definitely have a good nucleus on defense. They go after the ball and play hard every snap. Most of the guys there have won Super Bowls.”

A victory would give the Bears their first sweep of a three-game trip since 1993.

The secondary is preparing to play in passing situations without premier nickelback Ricky Manning Jr., who has been suspended for one game by the NFL. Cornerback Dante Wesley, who was listed as questionable earlier in the week, practiced Thursday and is now probable.

Tight end Desmond Clark, nursing a foot injury, was removed from the injury list.

“One of our strengths on this team is to be deep in every position,” Vasher said.

“In our secondary we’ll put guys in who can definitely fill in and are ready to make plays. Not having Ricky this week definitely hurts us, but we have guys who are ready for the challenge.”

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