CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bears linemen Kyle Long and Jordan Mills reached down to lift their battered quarterback from the turf after defeat was certain Sunday. This indignity was not part of the original script.
Victory seemed so probable not long before. But here was Jay Cutler, trudging to the sideline with his linemen after the Bears' third turnover in the final 6 minutes, 44 seconds completed a 31-24 loss to the Panthers.
"There were many opportunities for us to close this out offensively," Cutler said. "We put our defense in a bad spot. I thought they played really well, (considering) the circumstances and some of the field position we put them in. Offensively, a lot of that is on me. We've just got to play better."
The Bears fell to 2-3 under the weight of an offense that has scored a total of three points in the second halves of the last two games. In 11 possessions during that span, they have five turnovers.
Giveaways on the final three possessions helped turn a 14-point first-half lead into their first road loss. The nightmare began with Cutler's second interception of the game. Then running back Matt Forte lost a fumble for the first time this season. Then Cutler lost a fumble on a fourth-and-21 sack with 1:14 remaining.
Did the Bears give the game away?
"I'm not going to use those kind of words," coach Marc Trestman said.
Players, though, clearly sensed how the turnovers affected their ability to finish off the Panthers.
"Kills it," Forte said. "Kills it."
And yet their inability to protect the ball continues.
Victory seemed within the Bears' reach when the Panthers punted with 6:44 remaining and trailing by 3.
But on second-and-11, Cutler overthrew Santonio Holmes.
Holmes, from the right slot, ran a slant behind defensive end Kony Ealy, who dropped into coverage. The ball sailed far enough for safety Thomas DeCoud to make a diving interception.
Cutler assumed blame for a bad throw.
"High and over the middle of the field is never good," he said. "It happened twice today."
The Panthers turned DeCoud's 35-yard return into a game-tying field goal. But the Bears' offense still had plenty of time to score.
On their next play from scrimmage, though, safety Antoine Cason ripped the ball from Forte's right arm as Forte churned his legs against contact for extra yards. Cason recovered.
"Especially in a crucial situation like that, I can't let go of the ball," Forte said. "I've got to have two hands on it."
The Panthers drove 23 yards for the decisive touchdown, a 6-yard dart from quarterback Cam Newton to former Bears tight end Greg Olsen.
Even after that blow, the Bears' final possession began with legitimate hope. Yes, they were backed up at their own 15-yard line, but they had 2:13 on the clock with two timeouts. And Cutler had at his disposal some the NFL's best offensive weapons: Forte, receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and tight end Martellus Bennett.
The Panthers played their safeties deep and challenged Cutler to engineer a drive. Their pass rushers also did their part.
"You get in those two-minute situations and the formations we're in, you're going to get a lot of one-on-one blocks," Cutler said. "It's tough to hold up consistently in this league."
A sack on second down positioned the Bears in a desperation fourth-and-21. On the final play, the Panthers stunted defensive tackle Kawann Short around the right edge, challenging backup left tackle Michael Ola and left guard Matt Slauson. Short came free, crunched Cutler and forced a fumble the Panthers recovered.
"Me and Ola have to do a better job of communicating on that because I thought I was snapping off, and he thought we were manning it," Slauson said.
Just the latest breakdown in another sloppy performance. As Slauson sat at his locker, head bowed and wearing his grass-stained pants, the search for answers started with a question that's becoming too familiar.
Did the Bears give the game away?
"Absolutely," he said. "We have to do a better job as a team finishing these games."