Tribune staff reporter

Blame it on the cold. Not the whole season, you understand. The Bears wish it were that easy.

Because like the weather, everyone talks of how bad the Bears are, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it.

But Sunday was a fitting beginning of the end for a team that started out gangbusters and has ended up frozen as a statue.

Even the sitting pigeons from Cincinnati dumped all over these bronzed and busted Chicagoans, who have gone as cold as the temperatures. That 10-degree reading at the start of Sunday's game was no more chilling than this total and miserable collapse of a onetime playoff contender.

The 16-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who owned the worst defense in the NFL starting the day, assures that the Bears (7-7) will finish no better than last season.

"We're losing to teams we shouldn't be losing to," tackle Andy Heck said.

Coach Dave Wannstedt misspoke, not meaning to throw in the towel, but his subconscious took over.

"The playoffs were our goal," he said. "Rashaan (Salaam) has a 100-yard day and we stop catching the ball. That's really frustrating because we've been doing that all year."

Not the last two games, when the woeful defenses of Detroit and the Bengals were effective in shutting down the Bears.

Erik Kramer threw for 140 yards and no touchdowns against the Lions last Monday. Against the Bengals, 29th in the NFL in pass defense, Kramer was 18 of 36 for 196 yards and no touchdowns.

Cincinnati hadn't beaten a team with a winning record since November 1993. But then, the Bears don't have that distinction anymore, do they?

"We're not playing like a playoff team and we've got to do something to get back on track," Kramer said. "We've got to come out with a lot of fire next week against Tampa Bay."

Even two victories in the last two games, at home against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, are unlikely to save the Bears from being spurned by the NFL playoffs. Wannstedt can't plead progress even at 9-7.

Once in first place in the Central Division at 6-2, the Bears have fallen to fourth place by losing five of six games. Minnesota (8-6), the only team the Bears have beaten twice this season, is on a roll while the Bears are on a downhill slide.

Wannstedt pointed to two areas that have let down the team--all year and again against Cincinnati.

"In a lot of instances we have young guys we were counting on," he said. "Today we have a costly turnover and field position kills us."

Translated, Wannstedt was referring to Salaam's fumble--his fifth of the season--at midfield with 4:45 remaining and Todd Sauerbrun's punting.

Salaam, whose 5-yard scoring run had pulled the Bears within 16-10 with 9:48 to play, was clearly shaken in the locker room afterward, having teammates stop by for a friendly pat.

Sauerbrun averaged 30.5 yards on six punts. The most significant miscue was a blocked punt that gave Cincinnati possession at the Bears' 38-yard line with 3:41 left in the third quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, Jeff Blake found Darnay Scott wide open for a 38-yard touchdown pass and a 16-3 Bengals lead. Cornerback Kevin Miniefield was trailing.

But the defense, the usual suspects in most losses this season, got off the hook here.

"We battled on defense," Wannstedt said.

However, while the Bengals gained just 91 yards rushing, they were a far superior passing unit. Carl Pickens went 99 yards on 11 catches, some quite acrobatic on such a cold day.

Blake threw for 253 yards, completing 30 of 41 attempts. He sustained the first drive of the game for more than 8 minutes by converting on three third downs.

Doug Pelfrey kicked field goals from 28 and 37 yards in the first half to allow Cincinnati a 6-3 halftime lead. Pelfrey nailed a third in the third quarter, a 39-yarder for a 16-3 lead.

"Teams have adjusted to us as the year's gone on, but nothing we shouldn't handle," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We are just not executing. I don't mean to put it all the players, either. All of us could be doing better."

When Curtis Conway ran a hook pattern on fourth-and-5 from the Bears' 48 with 1:44 left, he set up 4 yards deep and was tackled there, a yard short.

"Same thing as St. Louis," said Wannstedt. "Whatever you wrote after that one, just reprint it."

The thrust of the story about the 2-2 Bears after the Rams game was that they were a team that needed improvement. That story line still stands.

"We know we have to do some work in some areas," Wannstedt said, getting his off-season speech worked up. "But we are better than what we performed today--players, coaches, whoever.

"We have had injuries. You can look at that as an excuse, but it's a fact."

Wannstedt has always avoided speaking of injuries. It's a sign of how low the Bears have fallen that he is alluding to them now.

But when you are 2-8 in December, as Wannstedt is, and winless on the road as an organization in that month since 1987, as the 0-15 Bears are in that span, you run out of facts to explain away such subpar play.

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