ATLANTA—The final scenes from "Titanic" come to mind. Frantic, desperate souls, knowing they are about to perish and yet still clinging to whatever they can find. A final prayer vigil. A sinking liner. Each other.
These are the 3-8 Bears. And that was the setting Sunday, in their 20-13 loss to Atlanta Falcons, a team going so swiftly in the opposite direction that it all but left skid marks on its hapless opponents.
This time, a weary defensive front four was the leaky lifeboat, and in the end, the Bears dragged them under too, leaving in their wake only the vow that they will go down as a team.
"We're still together, and we're going to stay together because we started this from the beginning and we're going to end it together," said defensive end Shawn Lee, who on any other team probably would have been the hero Sunday.
Lee was the giddy recipient of a forced fumble on a sack by Jim Flanigan early in the third quarter, a play that resulted in a 15-yard return for a touchdown and a 13-3 Bears lead. Coming as it did, just 64 seconds after a 32-yard field goal by Jeff Jaeger, the Bears had to feel pretty good about themselves.
The problem was that the Falcons, winners of eight straight at the Georgia Dome, showed absolutely no signs of a team on its way to defeat. "They probably didn't feel like we're a very good team, and how could you blame them with us 3-7 coming in?" said Bears end Mark Thomas. "They probably never felt they were out of this game."
The Falcons held the Bears' offense to three-and-out on the next two possessions, and calmly scored the next 17 points against a defense that simply wore down.
Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, third in the NFL in rushing coming in but thought to be hobbled by a bad ankle, was held to 12 yards on nine carries in the first half and just 30 yards on 15 carries through three. But he busted out for 42 yards on nine carries in the fourth quarter. "The energy just wasn't there at the end," said linebacker Rico McDonald.
The Bears, losers of their last three since an off-week interrupted a two-game win streak, have had leads in six of the games they've lost this season. Would Erik Kramer, their fallen starting quarterback, have made a difference Sunday? Would anyone?
Steve Stenstrom, who has failed to generate an offensive touchdown in the last 11 quarters, was 0 for 6 passing on third downs and just 7 of 18 for the day for 109 yards, a fumble and two interceptions, including one on the Bears' final possession with 1 minute 7 seconds left.
"We're just not making some throws," said beleaguered coach Dave Wannstedt. "It's the same thing. Sometimes we're not catching well enough, sometimes we're not blocking well enough, sometimes we're not running well enough."
And oftentimes, they are not doing those things all at the same time. While the Bears' special teams--two field goals, good coverage and a 61-yard kickoff return by Glyn Milburn to start the second half--made significant improvement from the last two weeks, and the defensive line, with four sacks, had one of its better performances, blame could be spread throughout.
The secondary was once again rife with errors. With the exception of a hit by rookie Tony Parrish, which forced a fumble that was recovered by Terry Cousin to end the first half, its coverage was soft and its judgment questionable. The result was a solid day by Chandler, who was 18 for 27 for 272 yards and two touchdowns before leaving the game with a sprained knee and ankle in the fourth.
"Both sides of the ball had opportunities to put the game away and couldn't do it," Flanigan said.
Wannstedt once again insisted he was satisfied with his team's effort. But a longer and louder-than-usual postgame session reflected an obvious frustration with the end result.
"It's about time someone gets mad," said tackle Mike Wells, who had two sacks on the day. "We're going to have to get this thing going to at least get momentum going into next year, if nothing else."
Angry or not, there is little the Bears can do at this point but begin looking toward next season. Wannstedt promised nothing in the way of changes, though Kramer's still uncertain status with an injured shoulder and Stenstrom's 0-3 record would seem to point to an opportunity for rookie quarterback Moses Moreno next Sunday at home against Tampa Bay.
"We're going to look at everything, and if something gives us a better chance to win, we'll look at it and try to get it done," Wannstedt said.
A better chance is about all they can hope for at this point.
"If you try to pick out the positives from losing, and you hate to do that, it does build character," Thomas said. "But this team needs wins, and it needs them badly."
"It's like, man, another game," Wells said. "You feel like it's just slipping through your fingers, like trying to hold sand in your hand or something.
"It's getting really bad. We're not the same team we were before the break. We lost something in that bye week, and none of us can put our finger on it. We're all giving it what we have and we're coming up short. It's frustrating, but we're going to keep plugging along. . . . What else can we do?"