LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) – Their lockers are close, although anyone could be forgiven for assuming there’s a fairly large gap in the relationship between Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson.

It seems that way at times, even though Jones wanted to put that thought to rest Wednesday.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “all the running backs have a great relationship.”

The Chicago Bears would reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years with a win over New Orleans on Sunday. And their chances may hinge on how well Jones and Benson perform.

The two are rarely seen talking, let alone engaging in the usual locker room banter. They’ve acknowledged their relationship is professional, and Benson has made it clear he wants Jones’ job.

“I know what I’m capable of,” Benson said. “The Bears know what I’m capable of. If this is the way they want to go about trying to win the big show, I’m all for it.”

For now, that means Jones remains the No. 1 running back and Benson the primary backup. And, it means coexisting.

Jones ran for 66 yards and two touchdowns as the Bears beat Seattle 27-24 in overtime last week after a first-round playoff bye. And Benson contributed 45 yards on 12 carries.

“I’ve always been a team player, and I’ll always be a team player,” said Jones, who rushed for 1,210 yards during the regular season. “Cedric has come in and done some really good things. He’s made some big plays for us and he’s helped us win football games. … I feel like I’m a leader of the running back group, and I want to definitely lead by example, whether it’s in the meeting room or on the football field.”

Jones was stuck on bad teams in Arizona his first three years in the league and spent the 2003 season with a Tampa Bay team that went 7-9, before moving to Chicago. But the Bears have gotten better in each of his three seasons.

They went from 5-11 in 2004 to 11-5, an NFC North championship and a playoff loss to Carolina last season. And they were 13-3 during the regular season and earned the top seed in the playoffs before beating Seattle 27-24 in overtime Sunday.

Now, Jones is close to reaching the Super Bowl – a notion that seemed unlikely a few years ago. No wonder he couldn’t sleep Tuesday.

He spent the evening speaking to relatives, watching film – and it was well past midnight before he knew it.

“I didn’t go to sleep ’til about 1 or 2,” Jones said Wednesday. “You just can’t help but think about it. It’s a very exciting time for me, exciting time for our football team and the city of Chicago. We have the opportunity of a lifetime in front of us, and we understand that.”

So does Benson.

“I’m not going to stir the pot and create drama two games from getting to the Super Bowl,” he said after the game against the Seahawks. “I just have to swallow my pride and put all goals aside that, personally, I may have set and just focus on getting the team to the big show.”

Benson expected to compete for the No. 1 job after Jones skipped voluntary offseason workouts, but it never really materialized.

Jones, who rushed for a career-high 1,335 yards last season, pulled a hamstring while running during a physical on July 27, and Benson missed the preseason after suffering a shoulder sprain on a hit during a training camp practice. He also was disciplined by the team for leaving the sideline during a preseason game against San Diego and missing a mandatory meeting afterward.

While Jones settled back in as the No. 1 running back, Benson at times seemed like a forgotten man the first 21/2 months.

He had fewer than 10 carries in five of the Bears’ first nine games – including Week 3 at Minnesota, where he did not leave the sideline. But with a bigger role, he averaged just under 62 yards the rest of the regular season and finished it by running for 109 against Green Bay.

“Cedric has done a great job of buying in, believing in what we’re doing and going out there playing when he’s called on,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. “And when he’s not in, (he’s) staying there focused, being ready. He and Thomas are true professionals.”

Now, they’re preparing for a Saints team that ranked 23rd against the run, allowing 128.9 yards rushing per game.

“This game right here is the reason that you play,” Jones said. “The playoffs (are) what all the hard work is for, the OTAs, training camp, putting yourself in position during the season by winning close games and winning big games. All your hard work comes down to these three games.”

AP-ES-01-17-07 1935EST