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It was a miserable Sunday at Soldier Field. Penetrating cold, gusting winds, pelting rain turning to sleet. The kind of day that makes football teams look bad.
Only in this case, while the Bears were huddled against the elements, slipping, bobbling and shivering their way through the afternoon, the Green Bay Packers played as if it were a light breeze in a summer drizzle.
If it was all in the mind, then the Packers drubbed the Bears mentally as well as physically. And in the process, effectively ended all pretense of a run at the playoffs. Now 5-8 following their 35-19 loss to Green Bay, the Bears have lost six of their last eight games and have to battle these odds: Only two times this decade has an 8-8 team made it to the postseason.
"I really thought we'd make a run at it," said a dejected Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache, "but at 8-8, you're not going anywhere unless a miracle happens."
Blache had reason to be dejected after the Packers, minus starting tailback Dorsey Levens and with Brett Favre taking the conservative route and sticking mostly to short passes, ran the Bears off the field with 188 yards rushing and 7-of-13 third-down conversions.
Meanwhile, back under the direction of quarterback Shane Matthews, the Bears' offense moved the ball decently enough but couldn't manage to get it into the end zone save for a 1-yard run by Curtis Enis. That capped an 18-yard drive which followed a fumbled punt return by Green Bay late in the third quarter.
The only other Bears touchdown came on a first-quarter interception by linebacker Barry Minter, who returned it 34 yards for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
"The long and short of it," said Bears coach Dick Jauron, "is we just didn't execute well enough anywhere to stay in the game."
Save for two Chris Boniol field goals in the north end zone in the second quarter, neither team scored against the wind. But to blame the wind for the Bears' ineptitude would be missing the point.
"When we had the wind, we looked good," said Favre. "When we didn't, we were OK."
The Packers never trailed after taking a 14-10 lead late in the first half. Their first score came on a drive moved along nicely by a 3-yard pass turned into a 20-yard gain by Antonio Freeman on a third-and-5 from the Packers' 29. Also helpful was a 22-yard run by rookie running back De'Mond Parker, who eluded Bears tacklers to the tune of 113 yards in 19 carries. It was his first 100-yard day.
"It was one play that was killing us," said Bears tackle Mike Wells, describing a simple counter play. "We're going to hate to pop in that film (Monday) because we were even at the line calling out what play they were going to run and somehow they were still popping it."
A holding call on the ensuing kick return pinned the Bears at their own 11-yard line. After a three-and-out, punter Todd Sauerbrun set up the Packers' next touchdown with the first of several line-drive kicks, this one traveling 27 yards and returned to the Bears' 29.
Six plays later, fullback William Henderson punched it over from 2 yards out, but Sauerbrun's dismal day wasn't over. Following the next drive, Sauerbrun bobbled the snap, hesitated, then bobbled the ball again as the rush came. He finally fumbled into the waiting arms of end Keith McKenzie, who took it 45 yards for a touchdown and 21-10 lead.
"I never had control of the ball," said Sauerbrun. "Them blocking the kick had nothing to do with anything. There was a guy who came right in and I tried to scoop it off the ground and kick it and I just couldn't get control of it."
Easy to overlook but ultimately just as damaging was a dropped pass by Alonzo Mayes on the preceding play--a third-and-2 at the Bears' 47. For the day, the Bears converted just 5 of 15 third downs and were 0 for 3 on fourth downs.
The futility of the afternoon was further evident in the Bears' next series. With 1:02 remaining in the first half, Matthews hit Bobby Engram at the shoe tops across the middle, which turned into a 55-yard gain with Engram shedding one tackler before getting caught from behind by linebacker Jude Waddy at the Packers' 10.
But the Bears managed only a 23-yard field goal by Boniol, who kicked a 24-yarder earlier and missed one from 51 in the third quarter.
The Bears were still in the game at the end of the third quarter after pulling to within 21-19 following the Packers' fumbled punt return on still another line drive by Sauerbrun. But Green Bay scored twice in the fourth quarter--on 12-yard and 21-yard runs by Parker--while the Bears sputtered, their last drive ending on a run for no gain by Curtis Enis on a fourth-and-1 at the Packers' 16.
Matthews, reclaiming his starting job following last week's four-game suspension of Jim Miller, was 20 of 37 for 223 yards with an interception. The question is whether Matthews will now be supplanted by rookie Cade McNown. "I wouldn't rule it out," said Jauron, who explained he must first determine how unlikely a playoff run really is for his team.
Sunday's game was actually perceived as the most winnable of the Bears' last four. With a week off followed by games against Detroit (8-4), St. Louis (10-2) and Tampa Bay (7-4), a postseason berth is that much more implausible.