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It's a Wonderful Life; Then
Winning isn't everything. Wouldn't you know it, a Green Bay Packer said that. And we'll skip the second part of the well-known cliche right now. Too depressing for the Bears to hear.
Vince Lombardi's famous words were given an entirely different spin Sunday by the Bears after all of their past sins and transgressions overtook them suddenly, like a skeleton falling out of the closet.
To be punished like this after winning 20-14 is still justice--harsh or not. Beating Philadelphia was a final twist of the knife, because the Bears could see what might have been against a team that's going to the playoffs.
Which the Bears aren't, for the second time in coach Dave Wannstedt's three seasons. Anyone basing the playoffs on Sunday would have chosen the Bears over the lackluster Eagles. But the 17th week of the season is too late to discover a defense.
"We screwed up that deal a long time ago," quarterback Erik Kramer said of the playoffs.
Linebacker Joe Cain ticked off the primary downfalls. "St. Louis. Pittsburgh. Detroit here. Yeah, Cincinnati too."
The losses to the Rams and Lions (a double dip) stand out even more now. Because what separated Atlanta and the Bears, both 9-7 overall and 7-5 in the NFC, was their record against common opponents.
The Falcons, rallying to upset San Francisco 28-27 Sunday, were 4-2 against common opponents, with two of the victories against the Rams and Lions. The Bears were 3-3 against the same teams.
Coming up a game, a yard, a kick, a catch, a block, a game plan, a sack or a pass defense short was the story of the Bears' season.
"We could have been 11-5, 10-6 with a couple breaks," offensive tackle Andy Heck said. "I really believe this is an excellent team that can go places without a lot of changes."
The Bears have some decisions to make in what free agents to re-sign for the offensive line and at wide receiver. Curtis Conway went the last six games without a touchdown after scoring 12 in the first 10. Jeff Graham was the more consistent down the stretch and finished with a club record of 1,301 receiving yards.
But will the Bears spend the money to sign both? Club sources have said Conway and Graham each are seeking $2.5 million a year.
"It's nothing like that," Graham said, disputing the amount. "Me and Curtis both just want our fair share."
The Bears were hoping the future wouldn't be upon them so fast. They had heard that the 49ers were leading the Falcons much of their game and hoped leaving the field to be going to Green Bay this weekend to open the playoffs on an upbeat tone.
"But at the end of Coach Wannstedt's talk (in the locker room), we found out Atlanta had won," said defensive tackle Jim Flanigan, who finished with a team-best 11 sacks after adding one more Sunday. "It was a tremendous downer for everybody."
No one more so than Rashaan Salaam. His three fumbles Sunday raised his total to nine this season. It was a year that came full circle for him.
After holding out early in training camp for a better contract, Salaam was held out of the fourth quarter of Sunday's game by Wannstedt. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner thinks the season may have hinged in part on so simple a thing as the rookie's extended absence from training camp.
"I told him after the game when he comes to Platteville (Wis.) next summer he's got to learn to hold on to the ball," Turner said. "It's a matter of waking up on Tuesday morning in training camp after a Monday practice. He is sore and tired and he still goes out there and gets beat on by the linebackers and linemen, making him hold on to the ball.
"It becomes a mental thing that carries into the season. He missed all that this year. He can run and play the game, but he missed that part. And that's what I told him after the game."
Wannstedt was brief in his press conference, but more emotional than he has been at any time this season. He didn't need a stiff upper lip now that his lip has been thoroughly bloodied.
"We have a team of winners in that locker room, and don't forget it," he emphasized with uncharacteristic brio. "I know we have to get better in a lot of areas, but there are not a lot of teams that could come back and win the last two games.
"It takes a lot of character and unselfishness. This team did what it would take today to win and I'm not concerned about myself, I could care less. It's just a darn shame."
Wannstedt later explained he meant nothing by referring to his own situation other than the spotlight should be on the players. But to be honest, it was likely a small sign of defensiveness after he has been the focus of some heavy criticism of late from outside observers.
Keeping together an offense that excelled while adding some defensive talent seems to be Wannstedt's major off-season challenges.
"I think Jeff and Erik have something special going," Turner said.
If asked by the front office to choose between paying either Conway or Graham, Turner refused publicly to give his honest answer.
"I'd say both," he said. "That's not my job."
Having a playoff chance spurned by the slight difference in records between common opponents should be a lesson the Bears learned last year. They were also 9-7 then, but got into the playoffs (and beat Minnesota) because of having a better record against common opponents than the New York Giants.
The Bears have to improve to the point where such trivia isn't part of the process--where they will go into the final game of the season with the playoffs assured and be as interested in the result as the Eagles (10-6) seemed to be Sunday.
"We owned Ricky Watters, I'll tell you that," linebacker Ron Cox said with one last bit of bluster about an Eagles running back held to 13 yards on 12 carries. "I'm making him my butler."
The bravado sounded out of place. But maybe it bodes well for the team in the long run.
The Bears now have to learn to back up their talk with some talent. It is a team that sways in the balance. A couple of key decisions by the front office will push them deeper into debt or closer to becoming a legitimate playoff contender.