In the land of Saints, the Bears committed their share of football sins in a 20-13 loss Sunday at the Superdome.
They fumbled five times, losing two that turned into 10 New Orleans points. They failed to make a stand on defense, allowing the Saints to convert third-and-15 on a fourth-quarter drive that resulted in the game-winning touchdown. They treated blitzes as if they were tougher to read than a French menu, neglecting to protect Kordell Stewart's blind side.
But of all the sins on the Bears' conscience Sunday, the whopper would be if they left town believing that officiating led to their ultimate demise.
Coach Dick Jauron gamely said afterward that referees "don't decide football games," but the temptation to blame officiating permeated the Bears' locker room. Most finger-pointing was in the direction of the guys in striped shirts.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher set the tone by taking some of the blame for not getting the defense off the field on the Saints' final 13-play scoring drive, but dishing out a share too.
"We beat ourselves one more time," Urlacher began.
Then he was asked about the officiating.
"They didn't do a good job today," Urlacher snapped. "We lost the game, don't get me wrong, I don't want to point the finger at them, but they [stunk].
"They can fine me, do whatever they want to. But they made a few calls that were costly to us."
Two calls, in particular, had a direct effect on the scoreboard.
The strangest came with nine seconds left in the first half with the Saints driving on the Bears' 7-yard line and out of timeouts. Quarterback Aaron Brooks hit fullback Terrelle Smith, who was corralled at the 3 by defensive backs R.W. McQuarters and Mike Green as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Bears players began celebrating what they thought had been a key stop.
But the Saints were flagged for having two men in motion, and one second was put back on the clock. Having benefited from their own penalty, the Saints then went ahead 6-3 when John Carney kicked a 30-yard field goal for a lead the Bears felt they didn't deserve.
Bears fans would only get more frustrated the next time the Saints got the ball early in the third quarter.
On third-and-7 from the Bears' 9, Brooks scrambled to buy time. Eventually, he found tight end Ernie Conwell in the corner of the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown. But a Saints penalty for having an illegal man downfield negated the score, and the crowd even booed when the announcement was made over the loudspeaker.
Then the officials huddled for nearly a minute, and changed the call. Instead of a field-goal attempt that might have made it 9-3, the reversal gave the Saints a 13-3 lead.
"They don't give explanations to players," Urlacher said. "But sometimes they screw up a lot more than we screw up."
A frustrated Phillip Daniels agreed.
"Don't make the call and take it away if it's not a penalty, it's not a penalty," the Bears' defensive end said. "They take those two penalties back and give them scores. That's the game."
In fact, the game may have boiled down to the two plays that put the Bears in position for those questionable calls to matter. Both of them came in a three-minute span at the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third.
With 1:34 left in the first half, Stewart dropped back to pass at his own 28. Saints defensive end Charles Grant overpowered left tackle Mike Gandy and knocked Stewart silly, jarring the ball loose. Defensive end Willie Whitehead recovered, and six plays later, the Saints kicked a field goal on the disputed play.
Grant, who had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, switched from the left end to the right end and speculated afterward that the Bears "didn't have enough time to game-plan" for the change.
With 13:34 left in the third quarter, just three snaps after their last turnover, the Bears' lack of awareness in pass protection created another turnover. On third-and-7 at the Bears' 27, nickel back Fred Thomas charged past Gandy and tight end Desmond Clark and attacked Stewart untouched. Melvin Williams recovered Stewart's second fumble at the Bears' 14, and three plays later they were debating Conwell's TD catch in the end zone.
Afterward, the Bears were asking just as many questions about how the Saints got to the passer so often.
"They were just blitzing guys we didn't practice for," said running back Anthony Thomas, who had his third straight good game with 96 yards on 21 carries. "We thought they would come at us with some new stuff, and obviously they did. They sort of caught us off guard."
Stewart dismissed the notion that he contributed to the pass pressure by holding on to the ball too long, an observation the Bears' coaches have noted themselves. He completed only 10-of-21 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown while adding 42 more rushing on nine carries and looked like a player still getting to know his new teammates and offense.
"It wasn't good enough based on my opinion based on my standards," Stewart said.
A careless play in the first quarter, by anyone's standards, cost the Bears. Stewart let a shotgun snap go through his hands on third-and-7 in the first quarter at the Saints' 36. Any positive gain would have moved the Bears within field-goal range for Paul Edinger, but instead they lost 22 yardsand possibly three points.
"I was not 'on' enough to have us win," Stewart added.
The Bears provided some suspense for their fans with a 12-play, 72-yard scoring march in the fourth quarter, ending in a 4-yard touchdown pass to Dez White with 2:10 left. But the drive ate up 5:08 as the Bears continued to huddle between plays rather than take a hurry-up approach.
"When you're down two scores, you don't want to pressure and create a turnover," Stewart explained. "If you get the ball back on the onside kick, there isn't a question why didn't you hurry up."
But the Saints recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
"It was there for the taking," Jauron said. "We just didn't take it."