When Bears running back Thomas Jones fumbled a handoff midway through the first quarter of Sunday's 24-5 loss to the Houston Texans, more than a football slipped through his frozen fingertips.
"When the ball is that cold, sometimes it's hard to feel the ball," Jones said. "Chad [Hutchinson] stuck the ball out there, and it was just a missed handoff."
More than three quarters remained in a day made for ice fishing, but the turnover came at the 16-yard line on the 13th play of a demoralizing drive that threatened to make the Texans long for the 65-degree heat of their home city.
Rejuvenated by Jason Babin's fumble recovery, Houston quickly warmed to the idea that it could beat a Bears team that proved again how good it has gotten at beating itself. Stunningly, though, all seven NFC teams with 5-9 records remain mathematically alive for the playoffs.
"I think [the fumble] had a lot to do with what happened," coach Lovie Smith said. "With that, the momentum swung quickly, and I don't think we were ever able to get it back."
The cold, hard facts about the Bears after their ninth loss numbed Smith more than the windchill factor of minus-8 that greeted the 44,313 fans in the Soldier Field stands at kickoff.
The worst offense in the NFL struggled so mightily again that it could not muster a touchdown against the third-worst defense in the league. That's the fifth time this season the Bears have failed to get into the end zone on offense. Play-caller Terry Shea will receive more blame for that ineptitude than Jack Frost.
The offense under Shea, who gave himself a "B" last week, clearly left its "A" game at home. Despite starting four drives in Houston territory, the Bears managed only 203 total yards and never penetrated deeper than the 16-yard line, where Jones fumbled.
The Bears' only points came from defense and special teams. Adewale Ogunleye forced David Carr into an intentional-grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety in the third quarter, and Paul Edinger kicked a 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
"You've got to be able to move the ball offensively," Smith said.
Two defensive players offered "no comment" when asked if the offense's futility had begun to wear their patience thin.
"Please, don't try to blame this all on Chad," Smith pleaded.
Hutchinson, protected Sunday as well as a boy with no hat or gloves, completed 17 of 34 passes for 168 yards and an interception. The performance looked shaky enough at times to conjure up thoughts of backup Jeff George.
"The wind was tough," Hutchinson said. "There were some balls that I thought were good balls, and they ended up short."
Hutchinson said he was "disappointed" with the loss, and the disappointment grew with each series. The Bears had moved to the Texans' 19 with 8 minutes 9 seconds left in the second quarter when, on third-and-1, center Olin Kreutz flinched and drew an illegal-motion penalty.
On the ensuing third-and-6, Shea made an odd call, and a draw play to Anthony Thomas picked up 3. On fourth down, Paul Edinger pushed a 39-yard field goal wide left that Smith pointed out afterward "didn't help at all."
Edinger's missed field goal hurt less than all the missed blocks.
"We just stopped ourselves again," Kreutz said.
Texans 24, Bears 5