PONTIAC, Mich.—They grasp at numbers now, juggling and rejuggling the equation each week until it still somehow works. And for the purposes of maintaining their professional sanity, anyway, it still does.
The magic figure now is 9-7. So what if it requires beating Green Bay, St. Louis, Detroit and Tampa Bay and then only hoping for a playoff berth? The Bears are not yet ready to give up on a season that has represented an emotional healing as much as the first seeds of a football revival. And so, when all else fails, they do the math.
And Thursday, all else failed.
Spotting the Detroit Lions a three-touchdown lead late in the second quarter, the Bears simply couldn't generate the offense to keep up, falling 21-17 before a Thanksgiving crowd of 77,905 at the Pontiac Silverdome.
It was Detroit's ninth win in its last 10 home games against the Bears and the third straight Thanksgiving victory for the Lions (7-4), who lead the NFC Central. More significantly for the 5-7 Bears, it closed the margin for error considerably just when errors are bogging them down.
Sputtering behind a positively stagnant running game while faltering under an increasingly unreliable secondary, the Bears punted six straight times and didn't convert their initial first down until 3:35 into the second quarter.
By then, Lions quarterback Gus Frerotte had already found Germane Crowell on a slant that eluded both Bears corner Terry Cousin and safety Chris Hudson for a 45-yard touchdown on a third-down-and-4. And the Lions' offense had generally established that it could convert third downs whenever it desired.
"I don't have any answers for that," coach Dick Jauron said of the Lions' 11-of-19 third-down efficiency compared with 2 of 12 for the Bears. "We just weren't in position to make plays and when we were there, it looked like we just didn't make plays."
Later in the second when they scored on consecutive possessions to take a 21-0 lead, the Lions looked as if they might be on their way to a Thanksgiving Day massacre reminiscent of their 55-20 rout over the Bears in '97.
Lions running back Greg Hill, doing a believable imitation of the retired Barry Sanders, bounced around left end and juked Hudson on the way to a 29-yard touchdown run. Then, aided by Robert Porcher's deflection of Jim Miller's pass on the first play of the next series, Lions linebacker Scott Kowalkowski snared the interception and returned it 29 yards to the Bears' 1-yard line.
Three plays later, Frerotte found Johnnie Morton alone in the end zone for a 2-yard score.
"We made a lot of mistakes," Cousin said. "I should've taken away the slant on the first touchdown. Then we have to battle back from the interception and then we lost the guy in the end zone."
Faced with the prospect of a sure defeat, not to mention nationally televised embarrassment, the Bears mustered up their most impressive drive of the day with a five-play, 53-yard no-huddle march that consumed just 1:15, included a 37-yard pass from Miller to Marcus Robinson, and culminated with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Alonzo Mayes.
"We finally just said enough is enough," said guard Todd Perry. "We screwed around in the first quarter and Jim got in a groove and in this offense, when you get in a groove, those defensive linemen get tired and it's hard for them to rush the passer. Unfortunately, we took too long to get going today."
The question afterward was of the chicken-and-egg variety. Did the Bears spend too long trying to establish a running game that was obviously going nowhere (12 rushes for 52 yards, including one 30-yard run by Glyn Milburn in the third quarter) or did they abandon it too soon?
With the Detroit secondary missing three starters and knowing that it looked dismal last week against Green Bay, why wouldn't the Bears, with the No. 2 passing offense in the NFL, come out and test it, particularly on first down?
"I thought if we just keep pounding them, the run will come and then we'll be able to pass," said Bears offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. "But then when we threw that interception and we got behind, there was the urgency to get right back in the game."
Jauron said when the run game failed early--17 yards in eight carries in the first half--it threw off the game plan.
"That's not how we want to play," he said. "We want to run the ball between 25 and 30 times a game. That's been our average. The game just didn't go the way we wanted it to go obviously."
Still, the Bears actually seized momentum late in the third quarter. Trailing 21-10 after Chris Boniol's 27-yard field goal, they engineered the sort of turnaround that leads to dramatic comebacks.
Pinned on their own 3-yard line and punting on fourth-and-18, the Bears recovered a fumble on the return, with Keith Burns falling on it at the Bears' 49. Five plays later, Miller shot a quick pass to Marty Booker oand Booker sprinted 23 yards for the touchdown to pull the Bears to within 21-17.
But bad habits came back to haunt them as Frerotte proceeded to eat up 12:31 of the fourth quarter to just 2:29 by the Bears. The Bears also helped seal their fate by using two of their three timeouts in the third quarter, killing any chance they had when the Lions ground out a nearly six-minute drive to end the game.
With four games left, the Bears have now firmly established themselves as a team without momentum, alternating wins and losses the last four weeks and never winning more than two in a row all season.
If it has left them feeling unsettled, it also leaves them legitimately desperate to accomplish their goal of reaching the postseason.
"We're digging a hole," said defensive end Bryan Robinson. "We can say 9-7 will get us in but if that's the case, we have to do it right now. We have to run the table because I don't want to be sitting here next week saying 8-8 might get us a wild card."
But is 9-7 even possible with three tough division games remaining and one at St. Louis against the 8-2 Rams?
"It's the only way you can look at it," said Perry.