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Bears' slim playoff hopes reduced to none
Face down and motionless, Kordell Stewart just lay there at the 5-yard line of a Lambeau Field that delivered the coldest of realities to the Bears during Sunday's 34-21 loss to the Packers.
Stewart lay so still for so long that two Bears teammates even ran over thinking he was hurt. And hurt he was; his pride had just taken a beating.
With 9 minutes 31 seconds left and the Bears driving toward a go-ahead score, Packers cornerback Mike McKenzie perfectly read a Stewart pass intended for Dez White. McKenzie returned the interception 90 yards for a touchdown that might as well have been a dagger.
In an instant that seemed like an eternity to the Bears, the 19-14 lead they were about to trim or overcome had become an insurmountable 27-14 cushion for the Packers. Within seconds, the 2003 season had all but ended and the 2004 season unofficially had begun.
"We think we'll be, at worst, two down, and all of a sudden the whole thing was turned around," coach Dick Jauron said of McKenzie's interception.
Stewart had tried in vain to tackle McKenzie near the 10 but was knocked off his feet. Afterward he was still feeling the effects of that blow, emotionally more than physically.
"That one play hurts me more than anything else," Stewart said. "[McKenzie] broke on the play pretty good. It was an anticipated play and he made it. It kind of stunned me for a minute."
Its ramifications will last much longer for the Bears.
The loss, coupled with the Vikings' victory over the Seahawks, mathematically eliminated the Bears from this season's playoffs and marked the start of the quest toward next season's. Now the best the Bears can hope for is an 8-8 record, and that won't be good enough to win any tiebreakers with the eventual NFC North champion or possible NFC wild-card qualifiers Dallas and Seattle.
In light of that, the Bears likely will take a long look at their quarterback of the future, first-rounder Rex Grossman, over the final three games.
A handful of Bears admitted they expect to see Grossman taking more snaps with the No. 1 offense in practice this week and wouldn't be surprised if he started at home Sunday against the Vikings.
"We'll talk about it on Wednesday and won't make any decisions before then," Jauron said.
That the Bears might have been only a few plays away from delaying Jauron's decision another week will nag them all off-season. But playoff teams don't turn the ball over five times on the road against a Hall of Fame quarterback like Brett Favre.
The crafty Favre completed 22-of-33 passes for 210 yards and helped offset a subpar day by the NFL's top ground game of only 97 yards rushing.
"We gave them enough opportunities, and they took advantage of them," Jauron said.
The game started oddly, as the Bears led 14-0 after their offense had run only 11 plays. But two big plays by the Bears in a 64-second first-quarter flurry sent chills of fear through Lambeau Field that had nothing to do with the 35-degree temperature.
With 1:54 left in the first quarter, Stewart threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Marty Booker, who had beaten McKenzie down the right sideline. Three plays later, Favre uncorked an ill-advised pass trying to throw the ball away that linebacker Lance Briggs picked off and returned 45 yards to make it 14-0.
"We were right where we wanted to be," said Briggs, who also tipped a pass and made nine tackles.
But untimely turnovers ultimately put the Bears where they belonged.
After Green Bay's Ryan Longwell kicked a 24-yard field goal to put the Packers on the board with 11:15 left in the second quarter, Bears kick-return specialist Jerry Azumah fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Packers' Torrance Marshall recovered at the Bears' 21. David Martin was credited with causing the fumble, but replays showed Azumah simply lost his grip on the ball.
"I fumbled. I don't really have any other comment other than that," said Azumah, whose 88-yard kickoff return for a TD late in the game meant more to his Pro Bowl chances than Sunday's outcome.
Four plays after Azumah's fumble, Longwell kicked a 38-yard field goal and the Packers had regained the momentum, if not the lead.
That came in the third quarter after the Packers converted McKenzie's first interception into a 35-yard Longwell field goal that gave Green Bay a 16-14 lead it never relinquished.
Even after McKenzie's second interception broke the Bears' back in the fourth quarter, they were driving in Packers territory when their fifth and final turnover of the day with 6:14 left sealed their fate.
Tight end Desmond Clark caught a 5-yard pass and was lunging for an extra yard when the ball popped loose. Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila recovered, and all hope was lost.
"That was on me, and if we score on that drive, who knows?" Clark said. "We'll never know what would have happened on those two drives (that included his fumble and McKenzie's interception) if we would have finished with at least a field goal. It really came down to just a couple plays we didn't make."
It also came down to a commitment the Bears never made to the running game. Running back Anthony Thomas carried the ball only nine times, his lowest workload in a game in which he was healthy since the season opener.
As a result, the Bears gained 44 yards rushing and became a one-dimensional offense, just as the Packers' defense had planned.
"They stacked the box like everyone else does, but even when they stack the box you have to be able to run the ball, and we couldn't," center Olin Kreutz said.
Thomas was coming off viral pneumonia and starting right guard Chris Villarrial missed the game with a strained oblique muscle, but excuses were as scarce as smiles in the locker room.
"I don't think that had anything to do with it," said Thomas, frustrated by his nine carries for 22 yards. "I haven't beat these guys in six times, and it's kind of getting annoying."
Indeed, it now has been three years and five days since the Bears have beaten their rivals to the north.
Nobody felt more frustrated about the Bears' seventh straight loss to the Packers than Stewart, who completed just 17-of-40 passes for 256 yards, with a touchdown and three interceptions. Stewart's quarterback rating of 41.2 was his lowest since opening day, and the toll showed after a day that started with so much promise ended in so much disappointment.
Asked if he worries about the inevitable move to Grossman, which would be Jauron's 23rd quarterback change in five seasons, Stewart bristled.
"That's my last concern," Stewart said.
Now Bears fans expect it to be the team's first priority.