Flailing against a backdrop of green and gold, floundering in a sea of uncertainty, the Bears dropped their heads in unison Sunday at Soldier Field, humbled once again by the Green Bay Packers and by circumstances they can no longer control.
It was their season finale, and in their dreams it was to send the hated Packers into the playoffs with a sizable dent in their already battered veneer and possibly even cause them to lose home-field advantage next week to the San Francisco 49ers.
That they failed, losing 16-13, left them feeling as helpless as ever--another conceivable victory snatched from their grasp and the fate of their coach possibly cemented by this latest gaffe.
"I thought our guys left it on the field, and at this point that's all we can ask of them," said Dave Wannstedt, whose coaching future will be addressed at a Monday morning press conference.
As usual, the Bears were ultimately outmanned, losing the game on a sack and resulting fumble by quarterback Steve Stenstrom on a second-and-3 play from the Green Bay 33 with 1 minute 1 second left.
"Four and 18," said offensive line coach Tony Wise, referring to No. 4 Brett Favre and No. 18 Stenstrom. "One guy is going to be in Canton, Ohio, and one guy won't."
And the guy headed to the Hall of Fame left the game after the first series of the fourth quarter with his team leading by three.
"We were not conceding when we put (Doug) Pederson in," said Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren. "Doug just needed some work."
If the Bears, finishing 4-12 for the second straight year, were insulted, they could only do so much about it. Two Jeff Jaeger field goals and a 14-yard touchdown pass from Stenstrom to tailback James Allen in the first quarter were as much scoring as the Bears could muster. And the touchdown was set up by the defense--linebacker Andre Collins' third interception of the season giving the Bears the ball on the Packers' 17-yard line.
Stenstrom turned the ball over three times, throwing inter-ceptions on the Bears' first two possessions, the second returned 33 yards for a touchdown by Keith McKenzie.
Wannstedt tried to console his team afterward, reminding them that eight of the team's 12 losses came by a touchdown or less. Actually, seven losses came by eight or fewer points, but it did not necessarily make his players feel any better.
"You can say we've been competitive," said tackle Mike Wells, "but we're not in the business of being competitive. We're in the business of taking people and throwing them aside. There's no excuse for this year."
Yes, the Bears played the Packers tough, losing two games by a combined nine points. But every team in the NFC Central beat Green Bay at least once this season, so coming close was not exactly a monumental achievement either.
"I don't really have anything good to say about that team," Wells said of the Packers. "They have a couple of exceptional players, Brett Favre being one of them. Other than that, I don't know. It's another game we should've won."
The Bears' defense held up, limiting the Packers to just 19 yards rushing in the first half, picking off Favre twice and forcing a fumble, which gave the Bears the ball on their 49 to set up their final drive.
The Bears won the possession battle, had fewer penalties, had consistently better field position, and gained 281 yards in total offense to 239 for the Packers.
"Today was a microcosm of the whole season," said linebacker Jim Schwantz. "It could have gone either way. We had plenty of opportunities. All season, we found ways to buck the trends."
And lose to the Packers. The Bears even pulled out another fake punt--on a fourth-and-2 from their own 42 with 3 minutes left--but Mike Horan's pass to a falling Ryan Wetnight was high.
They were seemingly bailed out by Pederson's fumble and Lemanski Hall's recovery on the ensuing series, but alas, it was not to be.
"It's tough," said tackle Jim Flanigan. "We fight every time we play these guys. It always seems like we come real close and we end up screwing it up at the end somehow. It's just disgusting really to have to play on your home field like this and have three-quarters of the fans be Packer fans. That's disheartening."
Said receiver Curtis Conway: "I don't know what to tell the fans. They think they're hurting? We're the ones going out there battling and getting beat up. We feel worse than everybody."
packers 16, bears 13