After a meaningless game that they nevertheless desperately needed to win, the Bears find themselves one game away from the start of the regular season with scant reasons for hope.
The usually cooperative Buffalo Bills (1-2), winless in 11 previous exhibition games against the Bears, brushed aside a fourth-quarter comeback bid by the Bears to leave Soldier Field with a 17-9 victory Friday night and the Bears (0-3) looking for answers.
The causes for concern simply keep multiplying, primarily because the problems are rippling through the first units, not the late-game reserves. The No. 1 offense, in fact, was still on the field into the fourth quarter, going seven preseason quarters without a touchdown before Bam Morris ran in from 2 yards out midway through the fourth quarter.
"We look at it that from Day One up until now, we've made strides," insisted receiver Curtis Conway, whose six catches were double his combined production of the first two games. "So we can be happy with that. We still have to put points on the board, score touchdowns."
The normally disciplined Bears broke down, incurring five penalties in the first half, plus two pass-interference calls on Tom Carter that were declined, one on a touchdown catch. Marty Carter, the senior member of a secondary that was expected to be perhaps the most solid element of the team, was called for a careless late hit in the third quarter.
The Bears were called twice for false starts and once for holding on a second-quarter drive that ended, not with the 29-yard run by fullback Robert Chancey for an apparent go-ahead touchdown, but with a missed field goal four plays after the holding call.
"Two weeks in a row we had opportunities early in the game to get points, whether it be field goals or touchdowns," said coach Dave Wannstedt. "We didn't get that done, and tonight that was the same thing with the touchdown being called back.
"We need to get the ball in the end zone when we have opportunities because they don't come very often."
The Bears now need a victory over the New York Jets next Friday to avoid their first winless preseason since 1978, and only the third in franchise history.
The offense managed to move into scoring position on its first two possessions. The Bears controlled the ball for 6 minutes 28 seconds the first time they had the ball, going 60 yards in 11 plays from their 20 to the Buffalo 20. Jeff Jaeger's fourth preseason field goal in five attempts gave the Bears an early lead.
It didn't last. The Bills answered with a 69-yard drive that lasted more than 8 minutes and ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Brad Johnson to Eric Moulds, who made the catch despite an interference call on Carter.
The Bears' offense, which has been thoroughly outplayed through the preseason, appeared to be about ready to break out. Despite continuing problems in the running game--the Bears had only 34 rushing yards through the first two quarters--the offense stood first and 10 at the Buffalo 29, from where Chancey followed blocks by the left side of the line and breezed into the end zone.
But the play was nullified by a holding penalty on rookie center Olin Kreutz. The drive ended with Jaeger's 43-yard field goal attempt going wide left. The Bears would not mount another threat until midway through the fourth quarter.
By that time, rookie Curtis Enis was seeing his first live action since signing Tuesday. Enis carried twice late in the quarter for 9 yards. Morris led all Bears rushers with 35 yards in 12 carries.