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."
Above all else, it symbolized a game of missed opportunity for the Bears.
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.
Stopping the run and rushing the passer, a nondescript Houston defense left the Bears' offensive line exposed more than the bare-chested souls who braved the Arctic conditions. Two sacks by the Texans (6-8) allowed the Bears to tie a team record of 55 given up, set in 1969.
"We did a lot of things wrong," Smith said. "Of course, I didn't do a good job, and as a team we didn't play well."
As Smith implied, the rookie head coach's curious decision with 6:43 left and the Bears trailing 10-5 made a comeback less probable. In effect, Texans coach Dom Capers called Smith's bluff after the Bears' coach declined a delay-of-game penalty as Houston faced fourth-and-7 at the Bears' 31.
Houston planned to move the ball back 5 yards with the penalty to give punter Chad Stanley more room to pin the Bears deep. But Smith surprised even the Texans by declining the penalty. Houston then called a timeout to set up a play after the Bears practically dared them to make the first down.
"I was thinking, 'Cool, let's go for it,"' running back Domanick Davis said.
The Texans did, and quarterback David Carr's 8-yard completion to Corey Bradford in front of Charles Tillman kept alive a drive that ended four plays later with Davis' decisive 11-yard TD run.
"We should still be able to convert in that situation," Smith said.
Three other breakdowns in the secondary overshadowed an otherwise solid game for a defense playing without linebacker Brian Urlacher. Of Carr's 220 passing yards, 132 came on three plays. And two came in a key sequence in the final minute of the first half.
On third-and-10 with 51 seconds left in a scoreless tie, Nathan Vasher failed to jam Andre Johnson off the line, and Carr delivered a perfect 26-yard pass before safety R.W. McQuarters could arrive.
That set up a 37-yard TD pass from Carr to Jabar Gaffney two plays later after safety Mike Green was late coming over to defend the sideline pass.
"Only one guy was out in the route, and he shouldn't be able to make that catch," Smith said.
That one guy, Gaffney, struck again on the third play of the fourth quarter when he got behind Jerry Azumah for a 69-yard pass from Carr down to the Bears' 7.
Even after the Bears held inside the 10 and Kris Brown's 20-yard field goal made it 10-5, hope existed.
It lasted until the Texans scored on their next series after Smith all but invited their offense back onto the field on fourth down.
Afterward, he welcomed the responsibility for his team's second straight loss.
"Right now, all we're looking for is to play good as a team, show more improvement than we've made these last two weeks," Smith said.
"We can spread the blame around, and it definitely starts with me."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times