First a sizzle, then a fizzle

Tribune staff reporter

It was as good as it gets for a little while Monday night. Good enough for the Bears' defense to feel truly proud of itself. Good enough for Rashaan Salaam and Raymont Harris to believe the running-back combination could actually work. Good enough even, to give the Bears some semblance of consolation as they contemplated their 38-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

But not nearly good enough to be anywhere but last in the NFC Central and looking up at a division that has already begun to separate the haves from the have-nots.

Against a Packers team that sustained serious injuries to cornerback Craig Newsome and tight end Mark Chmura and left plenty of room for improvement, it was pretty clear that the Bears have that much further to go.

"Our guys played as hard as they could," Bears coach Dave Wannstedt said, "but that doesn't guarantee you anything."

Two Erik Kramer interceptions in the second quarter--one leading directly to a touchdown--and a late fumble that resulted in a score could have been neutralized by one Green Bay fumble and an interception of a Brett Favre pass, both near midfield. But the Bears, unlike the defending Super Bowl champions, came away with just three points.

"Anytime you come up here and lose the turnover battle," Wannstedt said, "it's a no-brainer."

Kramer, who was 17 of 41 for 192 yards and a touchdown along with the two interceptions, blamed himself for the loss.

"I couldn't have played a worse game," he said. "I take responsibility for that. There were times I didn't see things clearly and I got fooled a couple times, and that is not acceptable."

Wannstedt said he would evaluate the quarterback position "like every position" each week. But asked if it were possible that Rick Mirer would replace Kramer as the starter Sunday against Minnesota, Wannstedt said emphatically, "No."

In fairness to Kramer, the loss was as much the fault of special-teams coverage as anything. Bill Schroeder, who raised the ire of the Bears last week for saying the series was not much of a rivalry anymore, did a pretty good imitation of the departed Desmond Howard with five punt returns for 107 yards, including a 46-yarder that all but offset a 57-yard Todd Sauerbrun punt, and two kickoff returns for 53 yards.

Aside from giving the Packers good field position all night, Schroeder's work was an especially painful blow to a Bears team that hired a new special-teams coach in the off-season and boasted of vast improvement in the coverage game in particular.

It was the Packers' fifth straight victory over the Bears at Lambeau Field and seventh straight overall, as well as Green Bay's 19th straight victory at home.

"We fought our hearts out--that's a positive thing to take away," said linebacker Bryan Cox, who drew three personal fouls in the fourth quarter, one for throwing his helmet in the closing stages of the defeat. "The negative is special teams and (two) touchdowns in the fourth quarter."

After holding the Packers' running game in check in the first half--eight carries for minus-2 yards--the Bears were demoralized by two Green Bay touchdowns in the final 6 minutes of the half. The first was a quick-strike, 1-yard scoring pass by Favre to Jeff Thomason after Kramer had been intercepted. The other was an 18-yard touchdown pass from Favre to Robert Brooks after a 44-yard pass play to Brooks set it up. Favre finished 15 of 22 for 226 yards.

For Brooks, who missed half of last season after reconstructive knee surgery, the moment was particularly sweet. He marked the occasion by repeatedly pointing to the repaired knee.

With the Bears trailing 3-0, Wannstedt elected to pass up a 48-yard field-goal try for Jeff Jaeger, who later kicked one from 42, and go for the first down on a fourth-and-7 situation from the Packers' 31-yard line. The experiment failed with an incomplete pass from Kramer to Bobby Engram, who apparently was held on the play.

"He was fine," Wannstedt said of Jaeger, "but it was 50 yards against the wind where we were, so we were trying to play field position."

But what was becoming apparent as the Bears ate up more clock was that, very methodically, they were moving the ball on the Packers. They ended up with a 4-minute edge in time of possession in the first half, a 6 1/2-minute advantage in the second quarter and a 5 1/2-minute edge for the game.

"Obviously, we had them on the ropes in the first half," guard Todd Burger said. "We were running the ball and passing the ball right up the middle, and that's supposedly the toughest part of their team. We felt good about ourselves. Then we let them back in.

"If we're going to win in this league, we're going to have to keep our poise."

Ahead 18-11 at the half, the Packers added two field goals in the third quarter to put the Bears in a 13-point hole from which they never emerged.

The Bears sustained several bumps and bruises, the most serious of which appeared to be a hamstring injury to guard Todd Perry, who was carted off the field late in the game. The extent of the injury was not immediately known.

"We're a lot better than we played tonight," wide receiver Engram said, "but saying that doesn't mean a thing."

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