The Bears' Champaign experience came to a dismal, fitting close Sunday with a 15-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp taunted some of the stalwart crowd of 44,406.
"Not in our house" was nowhere to be heard, and after all, this wasn't really the Bears' house, so it didn't matter. After the eight-game losing streak that followed the Bears' 2-0 start, nothing seemed to matter this season. The late stages of the fourth quarter were marked by some scuffles among special teams players, with the Bucs treating the beaten Bears with some contempt and the Bears at least taking issue with that.
As time was running down, running back Leon Johnson had to be led away from a sideline confrontation with a teammate, another low point in a season full of them.
The defeat extended a run of futility that has given the Bears (4-12) double-digit losses in five of their last six years and three of their four under coach Dick Jauron. A team that thought it was a player or two away from challenging for the Super Bowl before this season was left with nothing more to do with the postseason than being a game that mattered to everyone else but themselves. The season left them with a high draft choicethey will have the third or fourth pick in the draft.
With kickoff temperature at 38 degrees, Tampa Bay (12-4) won for the first time in its 27-year history when it was below 40. The Bucs had lost the first 21 sub-40 degree games.
Martin Gramatica kicked five field goals as the Bucs clinched the No. 2 seed behind Philadelphia in the NFC. The Bucs will have next weekend off and open the playoffs at home against Green Bay, San Francisco or the New York Giants the weekend of Jan. 11-12. The Bucs simply used the Bears as a punctuation mark on a season that saw their defense join the 1985 and 1986 Bears among only six teams in a 16-game season to hold opponents to fewer than 200 points.
With Gramatica's 33-yard field goal with 13 minutes 12 seconds remaining, the game was effectively over. The Bears reached the Tampa Bay 38 in the third quarter trailing 6-0, but inexplicably elected not to try a 55-yard field goal despite a strong following wind for Paul Edinger, who this year tied the franchise record for 50-yard field goals.
Tampa Bay cornerback Brian Kelly sealed the result, if there was any doubt, by intercepting a Henry Burris pass at the Tampa Bay 48. Gramatica finished the drive with a 26-yard field that put the Bucs ahead 12-0.
Burris, inauspicious in his first NFL start, was intercepted on his next possession at the Tampa Bay 37. Burris completed just 7-of-19 passes for 78 yards and threw four interceptions. He was intercepted on three straight possessions in the second half, the final time by backup cornerback Dwight Smith.
The Bears had been in no mood to go quietly. Center Olin Kreutz and tackle James "Big Cat" Williams were involved in separate shoving incidents in the first quarter and the mood spread to the defense.
Alfonso Boone, pressed into the starting lineup with Keith Traylor and Christian Peter injured, collected his first sack of the season. One series later, Phillip Daniels' fifth sack of the season flattened Rob Johnson and Brian Urlacher ran down Bucs for solo tackles on opposite sidelines on consecutive plays. Safety Mike Green recorded a 10-yard sack of Johnson in the second quarter and Daniels shared a second-half sack with Urlacher.
The Bears had the game's momentum in their hands. But as has been the pattern all season, they couldn't hold it. Gramatica converted a 30-yard field goal with 3:22 remaining in the half.
Two weeks ago the Bears dusted off their T-formation for Burris' one play in the New York Jets game. Coaches Sunday went another direction altogether, frequently shifting into a "ghost" backfield, with five receivers spread from sideline to sideline to give Burris a target-rich environment and room to scramble if the play broke down.
Burris twice dove for first downs at the end of scrambles and completed a 30-yard strike to tight end John Gilmore. But three plays later, Burris threw off balance toward Marty Booker and was intercepted by Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks at the Tampa Bay 22-yard line, the Bears' deepest drive of the half.
Brooks returned the ball 44 yards to the Chicago 22. With two seconds remaining in the half, Grammatica converted a 32-yard field goal to give the Bucs a 6-0 lead.
Even the Bears' tricks didn't go particularly well. Booker took a lateral from Burris and threw toward wideout Marcus Robinson, who has caught two previous Booker passes for touchdowns. But the ball was badly overthrown.