The Bears' offense was dead on arrival Sunday.
And so, with such chilling finality, is their playoff future this season after the Dallas Cowboys made themselves feel right at home at Soldier Field. Dominating virtually every offensive statistic, the Bears still managed to come up short in a 17-13 defeat in a National Football Conference wild-card game witnessed by 62,594 fans.
The Cowboys (12-5) will live at least a week to enjoy their mild upset before heading into the controlled-temperature Silverdome home of NFC Central champion Detroit next Sunday.
The Bears (11-6) invaded the Cowboys' 10-yard line four times, but came away with only 10 points. Meanwhile, the Bears further abetted the Dallas cause by turning the ball over three times and having a punt blocked.
"Unfortunately, we (laid) an egg once the playoffs started and we have to get away from doing that," said Bears guard Tom Thayer. "There are a lot of good times, but this is one of the worst."
Mike Ditka's teams are 2-5 in postseason play since winning the Super Bowl in January 1986. Four of those postseason games have been at home.
"Our guys played hard and they tried," said Ditka during a brief press conference. "There was no lack of effort. (Dallas) won, that's all.
"If you want to fault somebody, I guess you have to fault me. Don't fault those guys. They fought like heck.
"If you want to be analytical about it, maybe we are a step away. We'll find out how to make that step up. But maybe that's where we are. Maybe we don't belong up there with these other (playoff) people."
Later, on his postgame radio and television shows, Ditka elaborated. He said the club needed to look for "bigger, stronger" players through trades and the Plan B system. He also said the Bears need to acquire a "professional snapper" for punts.
Regarding recurring injuries to key players, Ditka made a veiled reference to fullback Brad Muster when he said players living in California in the off-season should strongly consider living in Chicago and do a better job of conditioning.
"We have guys who would rather live in California," said Ditka. "If that's the case, they should come to me and say they want to be traded to the 49ers, San Diego or L.A. I have no problem with that. We have to have our people here."
Ditka also said he would consider trading defensive end Richard Dent, with whom he has feuded. Dent negated a key defensive stop at the 1-yard line with what Ditka called "an inexcusable penalty" for illegal use of hands.
The Bears turned the ball over at midfield on their first possession when quarterback Jim Harbaugh fumbled. The Cowboys' Bill Bates forced the fumble and Tony Hill recovered with 10 minutes 46 seconds left in the period. From there, the Cowboys marched 42 yards on eight plays before Ken Willis hit a 27- yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
The Bears almost thwarted the Cowboys' drive on third down when Emmitt Smith fumbled. The Bears' Mark Carrier nearly recovered, but the ball squirted away and back into the hands of Smith.
Later, the Cowboys' Darrick Brownlow blocked Maury Buford's punt and Ken Norton fell on it at the Bears' 9.
"They definitely overloaded that (left defensive) side," said Buford. "It wasn't anything we hadn't worked on during the week. We just didn't execute by blocking."
"They overloaded a side and got away with a little holding," said the Bears' Ron Rivera, who lines up five yards deep to protect the punter. "The man jumped on (center) Jerry Fontenot and pulled him down so he couldn't block. That's where the free man came from. It's an illegal thing, but they didn't call the penalty."
Smith ran to the 6 on first down. Then quarterback Steve Beuerlein scrambled to the 1.
Smith (105 yards on 26 carries) was tackled for a yard loss on third down, but Dent was whistled for his penalty, giving the Cowboys a first down at the 1. Two plays later, Smith knifed in for the touchdown and a 10-0 lead with 2:50 left in the first quarter.
Harbaugh, hospitalized with flu symptoms Friday night, completed 22 of 44 passes for 218 yards and one TD. He was intercepted twice.
"I felt ready enough to play," said Harbaugh. "Sometimes, when you're 100 percent, you don't play as well as when you feel a little under the weather. I've had some of my best games when I had a broken rib or something else hurting."
The Bears drove from their 30 to the Dallas 1 on their next possession, but they were stopped on downs. The drive included Harbaugh passes of 17 yards to Wendell Davis and 9 and 19 yards to Tom Waddle, who got turned upside down after making the latter acrobatic grab.
A 9-yard run by Muster put the ball on the 2. But Muster limped off with a strained right knee and missed the rest of the game.
On third down, Harbaugh kept on a quarterback sneak for no gain.
On fourth down, Neal Anderson (34 yards on 13 carries) lost a yard.
Ditka said he does not regret passing up the field goal.
"If we had kicked the field goal, we would have lost by one point," said Ditka. "I think at that point it was the right thing to do."
The Bears' defense held the Cowboys deep in their own territory. But the Bears turned the ball over on a Harbaugh interception in the end zone by the Cowboys' Larry Brown.
The Bears finally got on the board with 15 seconds left in the half on a 19-yard Kevin Butler field goal. Rookie Darren Lewis (65 yards on nine carries), subbing for the injured Muster, infused life into the offense with an 11-yard reception from Harbaugh and three runs for 11 yards apiece.
Anderson was stopped twice from the 2 on second and third down before Butler was called upon for the three-pointer to make it 10-3.
The Bears seemed to gain momentum after Willis missed a 47-yard field goal, and advanced to the 26 before Butler lined a 43-yard field goal to make the score 10-6.
The Cowboys appeared to take the heart out of the Bears with a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard TD pass from Beuerlein to tight end Jay Novacek with 23 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Bears parlayed a fake punt into a 15-yard fourth-down pass from Buford to Rivera with 10:24 left in the game. But that drive ended with a Harbaugh incompletion with 6:29 to go at the Dallas 7.
After the defense again held, the Bears mustered a 50-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard scoring pass to Waddle with 2:42 left to make it 17-13.
"I stood on the sideline knowing we were losing the game, and marveled at the play of Tom Waddle (nine catches for 104 yards)," said Ditka. "I marveled at his heart. Tom has to stay in the hospital overnight. He doesn't know where he's at right now.
"Wendell Davis and Darren Lewis . . . so many guys played so hard."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun