Amateur philosophers and armchair psychologists will look at the Bears' 30-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday as somehow emblematic of the entire 2002 season, and they won't be wrong. They had several opportunities to win, made even more mistakes to lose, and couldn't adequately explain or obviously remedy the repeated shortcomings.
But in the microcosm that is every Sunday afternoon, there is also this, the one image that won't soon go awayBears rookie cornerback Roosevelt Williams leading a pack in a breakaway fumble recovery toward the end zone with veteran teammate R.W. McQuarters close behind on the last play of the first half, a 15-point Bears lead within their grasp
Until a Packers defender catches one of the fastest Bears from behind and they all go tumbling down. Again.
It ended in another Bears loss, dropping them to 3-9 and mathematically out of the playoffs. It was their fourth straight loss to Green Bay and their 15th in the last 17 meetings. And there was one final indignity.
The Packers' victory clinched the NFC North title with four games remaining, making it the earliest they have wrapped up a title since the NFL implemented division play in 1933. And it reminded the Bears once again just how far removed they are from their own division title last year.
Tight loss or blowout, it hardly seems to matter anymore. Brett Favre looked semi-mortal with 221 yards passing, two short touchdown passes and one interception. But when Ahman Green left the game for good in the third quarter with a sprained knee after rushing for 78 yards, Packers rookie running back Tony Fisher, undrafted out of Notre Dame, merely ran for 91 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
"When you lose, you lose," Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "There's no bright spots, there's no good points, there's nothing you celebrate about. You can try to find a positive thing or two to build off of, but you're still beat. It's like if you get hit by a bus or hit by a train, you're still dead."
And the Bears were as pulseless as a team could be Sunday after a game in which they committed five turnovers, including two fumbles and an interception on their first three possessions of the second half. "When you turn the ball over like that, the odds of winning are very minimal, so it's a long day for us, no doubt a very long day," said coach Dick Jauron.
Played in brisk winds and a temperature of 23 degrees with a 13-degree wind-chill factor at kickoff, the Bears managed to freeze the record crowd of 64,196 with a dominant first half.
Following a fumble by Favre forced by Rosevelt Colvin and recovered by rookie Alex Brown at the Packers' 18-yard line on Green Bay's first possession, tight end Dustin Lyman scored the first of his two touchdowns on a fake field goal, catching a shovel pass from holder Brad Maynard and scampering 12 yards.
The Bears had a chance later in the first quarter to build on their lead when Rabih Abdullah leveled Packers punt returner Darrien Gordon, jarring the ball loose. But Keith McKenzie, recently released by the Bears, recovered the fumble at midfield, and the Packers went on to score on a 21-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell.
The Bears lengthened their lead to 14-3 in the second quarter on an 8-yard pass from Jim Miller to Lyman. But, after another Longwell field goal from 31 yards, they lost another chance when Leon Johnson fumbled, giving the Packers the ball at midfield.
The most bizarre play, however, was yet to come. With five seconds remaining in the half and the Packers with a second-and-10 at the Bears 34, Bears safety Damon Moore intercepted Favre's pass at the 5. Moore fumbled at the Bears 40, and the ball was recovered briefly by Green Bay's Mike Flanagan, who immediately coughed it up, and it was recovered by Williams, who then took off on his ill-fated run toward the end zone.
McQuarters was in position to block Green Bay's Javon Walker but never touched him.
"There's a lot of things that have to happen on that play, but once you're in the open like that, you don't need any escorts," Jauron said. "But he just got run down."
McQuarters acknowledged he missed the block but said Williams, who was in the game as an extra defensive back, was not adequately warmed up for a long run. McQuarters said he was hoping Williams would lateral the ball to him.
"The end of the half is like the end of the gameyou get in the end zone any way you can," McQuarters said.
"Even if you have to pitch it back 40 times, you get in the end zone. That's basically how that play came down because before the play Damon said, 'If I get a pick, I'm pitching it back.'"
The worst was yet to come for the Bears, who have now blown three double-digit leads.
After a replay review failed to uphold the Bears' claim that Marty Booker had caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Miller that would have given the Bears a 21-13 lead, they had a first-and-goal at the 1 because of a pass-interference call on the play. Packers nose tackle Rod Walker said he slapped the ball as Bears center Olin Kreutz snapped it. The Packers recovered and drove 90 yards before Longwell kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Packers a 16-14 lead.
"That was the turning point right there," McQuarters said.
The Packers ran it up with two fourth-quarter scores. The Bears made the final score at least sound a little more respectable with a 45-yard hook-up from Henry Burris to Marcus Robinson. But like whether by bus or a train, the Bears were still flattened.
"All season long, that's how we've played, strong in the beginning and then fade out," said Colvin. "We've always been good in the beginning; we've always executed well the majority of the time. Just when we come out at halftime or in the fourth quarter, we just disappear as a team. It happened in the New Orleans game when we gave up a 20-point lead, that was the beginning of it. We have to find a way to finish."