John Tait wore a walking boot and a look of befuddlement, just one of many Bears who seemed unable to process Sunday's spectacular collapse.
"I'm not sure what just happened," Tait said.
Leading until 3 minutes 2 seconds were left in the fourth quarter, the Bears imploded and, thanks to Detroit's victory over Baltimore, watched their tie for the NFC North lead crumble. No Bears team has ever made the playoffs after starting 1-3.
Somehow, a ballyhooed defense surrendered touchdown passes of 33 and 28 yards in a 38-second span that also included a Kyle Orton fumble on a freak play.
Given that rookie safety Chris Harris blew his coverage on the first touchdown, third-year cornerback Charles Tillman got beat on the second and rookies Mark Bradley and Cedric Benson joined Orton in losing fumbles, the Bears learned yet another lesson on growing pains.
"That's no excuse," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "If they're out on the field, we have confidence in them. Whoever is out there, you have to get it done. That's all there is to it."
The loss wasted Thomas Jones' third straight 100-yard game, interceptions by Mike Brown and Tillman and a workmanlike effort from Orton, who rebounded from his five-interception disaster against Cincinnati with zero. He also threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to fullback Marc Edwards. But any bright spots were obscured by a defense that is coming to be better known for allowing big plays than for making them.
"If we think we're a good defense," Urlacher seethed, "we better start showing it."
The Bears' collapse began with just under 10 minutes left, seven minutes before Cleveland quarterback Trent Dilfer hit Antonio Bryant on the back-to-back scores.
That's when Jones, so solid with 137 yards on 24 carries, left with a bruised right knee that he claims isn't serious. The Bears knew that running the ball successfully would be a key ingredient in any victory, and Jones' loss seemed to deflate them offensively.
"If we had come up with one drive at the end of the game or at least put them back in their own territory, we probably would've won," center Olin Kreutz said.
The Bears did convert two third-down plays on the possession on which Jones exited, but the drive eventually stalled. Brad Maynard boomed a 49-yard punt that pinned the Browns at their 17-yard line, but Carl Fordanother young playergot called for a costly and questionable illegal-motion penalty.
"Sometimes you have that feeling that you're going forward," Ford said. "I didn't have that feeling. It was weird that it was called."
Maynard's second attempt traveled just 36 yards, and Dennis Northcutt returned it 15 yards to set up Cleveland at its 46.
Dilfer, unspectacular all day, converted a huge third-and-6 play with a completion to tight end Steve Heiden. After an 11-yard pass play to tight end Aaron Shea, Tillman let Bryant past him because the Bears were playing zone. But Harris helped far too late, about the time Bryant was celebrating his 33-yard touchdown.
"We were in cover 2," coach Lovie Smith said. "That's not the cornerback's play, that's the safety's play. The safety should've made the play.
"That's the safest [coverage] you can get. Guys were in position to make plays. There's no magic cure or anything like that. Guys get paid to make plays back there, and they're going to have to."
Said Harris: "It wasn't a rookie mistake. I just didn't get deep enough. I've seen that play before. The quarterback just held the ball a little longer, and I should've gotten deeper."
The Bears had plenty of time and a fresh set of downs after Orton found Bradley for an 11-yard gain to their own 42. But as Orton dropped back, Adrian Peterson dived forward to block on a blitz and appeared to brush the ball with his helmet as safety Chris Crocker sacked Orton. Crocker recovered the ball at the Bears' 29.
"There was a blitz, and Adrian had to come pretty tight to pick it up," Orton said. "It's one of those things that happened. It's nobody's fault.
Cleveland wasted no time, victimizing Tillman in man-to-man coverage on the second play after the turnover. Bryant easily hauled in Dilfer's 28-yard touchdown pass, the third straight game Tillman has been beaten for a score.
"It's a tough circumstance for [Tillman]," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "We're trying to anticipate them doing certain things in that situation, and they came out with something different. It's something we'll look at as far as his leverage and what he should've done."
What all the players think they should have done is put away a game they desperately needed to win.
"We've got an uphill battle now," Orton said. "When you're up 10-6 late in the game, you have to win. At 1-3, we're by no means out of it. But it's getting down to crunch time. We have to start piecing wins together."