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The magic carpet ride that was the Bears' 2001 season ended in tatters Saturday.
It closed with a 33-19 loss to the visiting Philadelphia Eagles that was capped ignominiously by Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb scoring on a 5-yard run and dunking the ball over the crossbar of the south goal post on a field where the Chicago-area native had one day hoped to play.
The outcome sent the Eagles into the NFC championship game next Sunday against the winner of the Green Bay-St. Louis game. And it took the Bears out of the playoffs and into an off-season of questions:
Will Dick Jauron's contract be extended beyond the 2002 season? How will the Bears deal with a schedule of 16 road games, owing to all home games moving to the University of Illinois in Champaign while Soldier Field is destroyed and rebuilt?
How many of the free agents from a playoff team will the Bears want to and be able to retain, and what will losses do to the chemistry of a team that had more of it than at any time in the last decade?
"The thing we earned this year was respect," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "There was a lot of love inside this team. We had people doubting us and saying we couldn't do things, and we stayed together. That's the one thing I'm proudest of with this team. I take my hat off to everybody."
And finally, what effect will a somewhat startling performance have on a young team short on playoff experience?
Indeed, some aspects of this defeat were more surprising than some of the improbable finishes that marked the Bears' 13-3 regular season. With just 73 passing yards, the Bears were outgained (336-184) for the 12th time in 17 games, so that wasn't unusual. They scored a defensive touchdown, a 39-yard interception return by cornerback Jerry Azumah, the sixth touchdown return of the season, so that wasn't unusual either.
But the physical Bears were beaten and beaten up, which was very unusual. They lost quarterback Jim Miller to a separated shoulder in the second quarter after he threw an interception and was taken down by defensive end Hugh Douglas. Safety Mike Brown left with a concussion, as did receiver Dez White, and No. 1 receiver Marty Booker separated his shoulder.
"They flat-out beat us," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. "They stuck it to us bad. There's no excuses. They just kicked us in the butt."
Still, a team that has been prepared mentally all season and was 4-0 after a week off under coach Dick Jauron was not as ready to play as its opponent in the biggest game of the season.
"They came out after us," linebacker Warrick Holdman said. "We pride ourselves on being physical and taking it to teams, and they're the same. They jumped on us in the first half. They were ready to go and we were like, `Well, we're just off an off week, but we'll get you.'
"We've been kind of doing that all year. We'd have a bad half. We knew we couldn't do that, but we did. You've got to be ready to go in the playoffs and we didn't."
The Bears were uncharacteristically pushed around almost from the opening kickoff. The Eagles started from their 22-yard line and drove 61 yards for a field goal, only the second score on an opening drive by a Bears opponent this season. Ominously, the Eagles took 12 plays and nearly six minutes to do it.
It was a sign of things to come. The Eagles drove 63 yards on nine plays on their next possession for a second field goal, and they would engineer two more 11-play drives on the Bears, eventually controlling the ball 36 minutes.
The Bears made their big plays: the Azumah touchdown interception in the third quarter, and a 47-yard run on an end-around by former St. Rita and Wisconsin star Ahmad Merritt in the second. But they missed too many for a playoff game, failing to contain Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb consistently and suffering two critical breakdowns on defense.
With 14 seconds to go in the half, McNabb eluded several Bears rushers and found fullback Cecil Martin all alone in the left corner of the end zone. The touchdown put the Eagles ahead 13-7 at halftime, ending a half in which the Eagles outgained the Bears 230-88.
The Bears regained the lead when cornerback R.W. McQuarters stepped in front of a McNabb pass intended for James Thrash. Azumah gathered in the carom and scored untouched down the left sideline for a 14-13 lead.
The Bears may have taken the lead, but they could not sustain any momentum.
They went three-and-out on their next possession, giving the Eagles the ball at their 36-yard line after a 15-yard punt by Brad Maynard.
Azumah sacked McNabb, but McNabb again evaded the pressure and threw to tight end Jeff Thomason for 30 yards to the Chicago 10. Two plays later, running back Duce Staley split wide right, catching the Bears in a coverage mixup and catching a 6-yard pass from McNabb to put the Eagles ahead for good at 20-14.
Afterward, the Bears' 13 wins and epic turnaround from five wins the year before were no consolation.
"We all expected to go all the way," guard Rex Tucker said. "Now it's not happening and that's disappointing. We can say we won the division and all that, try to hide behind those facts, make it sound good, sugar it up a little bit. But it's not where we wanted to be."