The biggest issue for the Bears going into Sunday night's game against the Green Bay Packers was whether coach Lovie Smith could risk resting any of his starters while maintaining momentum and, in his most optimistic moments, peak going into the NFL playoffs.
But after the Bears' dismal 26-7 loss on national television, the pressing question was how they will pick themselves up again in just two short weeks. The Bears turned the ball over six times and played their way out of it early by spotting the Packers a 23-0 halftime lead.
Three interceptions and a fumble by Rex Grossman, and two interceptions of second-half replacement Brian Griese told the story of a night on which Brett Favresurprise!looked great again and the Bears looked thoroughly listless, leaving the 62,287 who eschewed New Year's Eve plans for Soldier Field to second-guess their decision.
Conversely, if this was a Packers team with nothing to play forindeed, Green Bay had been eliminated from the playoff picture earlier in the dayyou could have fooled everyone who saw the game, including the Bears.
"Everything that could go wrong did go wrong," Grossman summed up.
At 37, Favre went practically untouched and was at times almost as scary as he has been on his best days against the Bears, throwing for 209 yards in the first half, passing for 13 first downs in his first 18 completions and finishing the game 21-for-42 for 285 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
And afterward, he left fans wondering more than ever if this game was his last. "What a great way to go out," he said, fighting back tears as NBC-TV's Andrea Kremer asked how he would feel if this was indeed it.
The victory was the Packers' fourth straight and gave them an 8-8 finish to an otherwise disappointing season. The Bears ended up 13-3, missing out on their best regular-season finish since 1986 and an undefeated NFC season.
Favre, as always, looked as if he owned Soldier Field on the first possession of the night, leading the Packers on an 11-play, 75-yard drive in which he had four passing first downs and converted 3 of 3 third downs before zipping a 9-yard TD pass to Donald Driver for a 7-0 lead.
Favre, now 22-8 against the Bears, had already thrown for 117 yards with more than three minutes remaining in the first quarter when he made his only mistake, throwing an interception to Nathan Vasher in heavy traffic.
The Bears' momentum was short-lived. Packers safety Nick Collins stepped in front of Desmond Clark on a third-and-2 play at the Bears' 45-yard line on the next series, returning the interception 55 yards for a touchdown. A missed conversion left the Packers holding a 13-0 lead with 50 seconds left in the first quarter.
Grossman's second turnover occurred on the next series when he fumbled the snap. But the Bears caught a break when Packers kicker Dave Rayner's troubles continued with a missed 32-yard field goal.
Grossman finished first halfand the night, as it turned outwith 33 yards passing. He completed just 2 of 12 with three interceptions and a fumble for a 0.0 quarterback rating, his third of the season under 11.
"Our team performance concerns me, not just Rex," Smith said, adding that there would be no changes at any position for the playoffs. "Offensively, what we were able to do defensively I'm grouping all of us together on this game. We all have to play a lot better."
A lone bright spot for the Bears in the first half was the play of Cedric Benson, who had a season-high 75 yards rushing after his first eight carries. He finished with 109 yards on 13 carries, his first career 100-yard rushing game.
But it was hardly enough to offset a thoroughly awful first half in which the Packers made the Bears look anything but playoff-ready.
Griese, who led the Bears on their decisive fourth-quarter drive against the Lions last week, picked up where Grossman left off. He was 3-for-10 for 27 yards and one interception for a 0.0 passer rating through three third-quarter possessions.
Later, Griese found Mark Bradley at the Green Bay 30, and he easily outran Packers cornerback Patrick Dendy to complete a 75-yard touchdown.
But Favre brought the Packers right back, driving them 47 yards on 11 plays to a 46-yard Rayner field goal that increased Green Bay's lead to 26-7.
That's how it ended.
How will the Bears, and the defense in particular, regain the swagger that now seems so long gone?
"I don't know," Vasher said. "We have to find it. We have to have a purpose to go out there and play. Whenever you get on a stage that we're going to be on the next couple of weeks, I think everybody will be able to rise to the occasion."