Almost good enough never felt worse, primarily because it keeps looking better.
If the Bears almost beat Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay the first three weeks of the season, then they really almost beat the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, performing as well offensively in the first half as they have the last two years, only to once again collapse in the second half.
Soldier Field left the Bears at 0-4 and left fans actually applauding the troops as they left the field, wondering if maybe this isn't as good as it gets. The trouble is, the players might be starting to wonder the same thing.
"I think everybody's playing hard," offered perplexed and red-faced defensive tackle Mike Wells, a first-year Bear. "It just gets to the point where somewhere in their minds, it's like they expect something bad to happen and then it might be like a self-fulfilling prophecy."
This time the Bears led 21-10 at halftime before the Vikings ran off 21 straight points to all but put the game away. There were miscues on special teams that led indirectly to a Minnesota field goal and touchdown. There was a career passing day by Erik Kramer tainted by a critical interception at the goal line to kill a potential scoring drive with the Bears still leading 21-17 late in the third quarter.
And there was another inexplicable turnaround after intermission.
"This is a lesson in frustration and humility so far this season," Kramer said.
Think they're grasping for answers to explain being outscored 44-0 in the third quarter this season and 78-0 over the last nine regular-season games?
How about this idea?
"Mark Thomas even suggested today, `Let's not even go in for halftime. If we have that momentum, let's just stay out on the field. Make it like a high school deal and make our adjustments out there,' " Wells said. "It might work. We've got to try something.
"We just get tired of hearing the same old thing. There's only so many things (coach) Dave (Wannstedt) can say and every week it seems like we're hearing, `It's just a few plays,' and I don't think it's the coaches' fault."
Actually, it really was just a few plays. That's all you need if one happens to be a 67-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Randall Cunningam to Robert Smith the fifth play of the game, another is a 35-yard bomb to Cris Carter, and still another is a 44-yard rainbow to rookie phenom Randy Moss. It doesn't take too many of those.
A 50-yard field goal in the second quarter by Gary Anderson--set up by a 20-yard shank by new Bears punter Mike Horan on a bad snap from rookie Patrick Mannelly--and a 19-yard TD pass from Cunningham to tight end Andrew Glover were merely two more daggers to the Bears' chances.
"It's real simple," Wannstedt said. "They made three plays in the second half and we didn't make any plays. I wish I could stand here and tell you it was something that was or wasn't done at halftime or was or wasn't done on the field."
Following Smith's quick strike, the Bears' offense--behind Kramer and without Curtis Conway, who aggravated a groin injury and left the game for good in the first series--kept the Vikings guessing. Poised to stop the run, Minnesota found itself the unwitting victim of the offensive line's superb protection and of Kramer's arm. He threw for 208 yards in the first half alone on 12 of 19 completions and three touchdowns, often to a rare three-receiver set.
In between several drops were scoring passes to Engram for 33 and 4 yards and a 23-yarder to Chris Penn as the Bears once again this season looked as if they might actually win going away.
The Bears' 21-10 halftime lead was followed by another display of third-quarter ineptitude. Whatever the case, the Bears opened the third three-and-out before a punt by Horan--signed to replace Todd Sauerbrun after his season-ending knee injury last week--was returned 53 yards by Minnesota's David Palmer.
Five plays later Cunningham found Glover and the Vikings had, for all intents and purposes, seized control. "They run back a punt 53 yards and we have about six guys miss tackles," said a slightly defensive Wannstedt in discussing halftime adjustments. "I don't know what to tell you, (that we'll) work on tackling at halftime. . . . Field position killed us."
That and Kramer's end-zone interception on the next series, which came on an audible to Fabien Bownes picked off by left corner Corey Fuller. "Fuller made a good play," Kramer said, "but I left the ball inside and that's something you can't do down there. I feel terrible because it really cost us."
If the Bears game plan changed, it was hard to tell with two more three-and-outs and a four-play, 9-yard drive before Kramer's 19-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Wetnight with 1:53 left in the game made the score 31-28.
The Vikings had taken their first lead at 24-21 on Carter's 35-yard touchdown catch over Terry Cousin on the drive after Kramer's interception. They put the game away with a jump ball grabbed by Moss over Walt Harris and Tony Parrish.
"There's something about us that when something bad happens, we shut it down," Wells said. "We say the right things, we just have to make the plays."
The Bears have lost all four games this season after leading at halftime, an NFL record. Their first-half success Sunday was all the more impressive since it came without Conway and offensive tackle Andy Heck (broken toe).
"I think this team still has confidence we can get it done," defensive end Mark Thomas said. "But this has got to stop.
"We have to find a way, I don't care what it takes, more sacks, turnovers, knocking guys out, to win a game."
vikings 31, bears 28