ST. LOUIS—So much for keeping up with the big boys.
So much for playoff hopes dangling by a mathematical thread.
Beating the Detroit Lions, as it turns out, doesn't mean much when you're playing a real playoff team. And easy schedule, easy conference or not, the Rams sure looked like a team of greatness against the Bears.
"We're definitely out of it now," said Bears coach Dick Jauron, after the Rams' 34-12 victory Sunday dropped his team to 6-9. "And it's really a disappointment."
Pulling for what seemed like a dozen different scenarios that would have actually had them going into the final week of the season with an outside shot at the playoffs, the Bears learned there were a few other variables involved.
Such as holding onto the ball on the few occasions you get close to the opponents' goal line. Such as moving the ball on the ground. Such as stopping a certain Marshall Faulk, who made it look as if he wereon the field all alone in becoming only the second player in NFL history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in running and receiving in a season.
But as St. Louis native and Bears tackle Mike Wells said, "Losers always say, `What if ? . . . ' And I'm tired of saying, `What if?' "
The most popular line of questioning afterward involved whether the Bears could do what the Rams have done in going from 4-12 last season to their current 13-2 with home-field advantage secured through the playoffs.
Of course, that would entail picking up two MVP candidates such as Faulk and quarterback Kurt Warner and six Pro Bowlers in all.
And even the most optimistic of the Bears admit it's a long road. "I'm sure at some point in time we'll be able to fall behind, come back, score and win, but we're not at that point yet," said offensive tackle James Williams.
Solace for the Bears came mostly in having held the Rams scoreless through the first four minutes of the second quarter; only one other St. Louis opponent all season had gotten out of the first quarter unscathed.
The Rams, however, scored 17 unanswered points in the second and 14 in the third to a lone touchdown and missed conversion by the Bears to quickly erase any early optimism. By the fourth quarter, Warner and Faulk were on the bench.
The Bears used both Cade McNown and Shane Matthews at quarterback after McNown strained a muscle in his side late in the first half and did not return in the second.
Before exiting, McNown completed 9 of 16 passes for 125 yards. But more significantly, he had one fumble, one interception and four sacks, and both turnovers came deep in St. Louis territory.
McNown's first turnover--a fumble forced by tackle D'Marco Farr and recovered by end Grant Wistrom early in the second quarter--was particularly costly.
For starters, the Bears actually had the momentum at that point, having just snuffed out a Rams' drive with an interception by Sean Harris in the end zone following a jarring blow to Jeff Robinson by Tony Parrish.
And the fumble came on a first-and-10 from the Rams' 30 following a 47-yard completion to Marcus Robinson.
The Bears appeared to catch a break when Bobby Engram chased down Wistrom and snatched it back out of his grasp after a 31-yard return. But as it turned out, it only delayed the inevitable.
The Rams scored on the next series, a five-play, 82-yard drive that began with a 2-yard loss by Faulk on a hit by Bryan Robinson and ended with a 48-yard screen pass to Faulk for a touchdown.
A McNown interception on the next drive--this time following a 24-yard completion to Alonzo Mayes that gave them a first-and-10 at the Rams' 20--officially broke the Bears' spirit and handed permanent momentum to the Rams.
McNown said he could have "gutted out" the rest of the game, but did not want to be a liability. Matthews, who had started two weeks ago before McNown got the nod for the rest of the season, did not have much to work with, entering the game with the Bears trailing 24-0 after Warner opened the second half with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Bruce.
Matthews then dug the hole a little deeper with an interception to Wistrom, who snared the ball five yards downfield and returned it 40 yards for the touchdown.
Matthews' biggest contribution could have been to the wallet of Engram, a free agent-to-be who caught eight passes from Matthews for 109 yards and two touchdowns to finish a career day of 13 receptions for 143 yards.
"It's the same old story," said Wells, about the Bears' propensity to give up big plays. "Every time we lose, we have to explain something like this. I don't know how the guy catches the ball when he's double-covered, but he did."
With one game remaining, next Sunday at home against Tampa Bay, the Bears go from the hopefulness of calling this their "championship season" to an about-face toward next season.
"We're going to have a last-place schedule next year. That should be to our advantage," said offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer, in reference to the Rams' easy schedule this season.
In the quiet of the losers locker room, it was something to grab hold of.