This time, it hurts so bad

His breathing was labored, his every move accompanied by a grimace, and if it had taken Raymont Harris any longer to tie his shoes, he may very well have begun to calcify in mid-stoop.

"What hurts?" he was finally asked.

"Well," said Harris, perhaps considering his back, ribs, shoulder and ankle as possible answers, "a lot of things. But pride, No. 1."

He may as well have been speaking for the team, for with almost nothing left to hide behind any longer, the Bears are one big open wound. As utterly defenseless as they were on Minnesota's game-winning final drive. As susceptible to self-doubt after their 29-22 loss before a haughty crowd of 63,443 at the Metrodome as they have ever been.

Losing is no longer an unfortunate result. It's a reaction. It's a habit they just cannot seem to break.

"It gets tougher each week," said Bears linebacker and human barometer Bryan Cox. "This is embarrassing. We play football for pride and for the competition, to prove you're tougher than the guy in front of you, and a lot of those things just don't seem to be true. It's getting redundant."

For a resigned Bears coach Dave Wannstedt, the day was a numbing blow atop too many to count already. A good effort obscured by mistakes from which mediocre teams just do not recover. And an outlook that is once again clouded by injury.

"People want to see young guys?" Wannstedt said, issuing both the threat and the promise. "Just wait. It's only going to get worse. We'll probably get some guys on the all-rookie team now."

At 1-9, no one has to do the math to tell them the season is over.

And now Harris is banged up, his availability for Sunday's game against the Jets in question. Wideout Bobby Engram limped away with a sprained ankle. Receivers Curtis Conway and Chris Penn were already out of the lineup with injuries, leaving too much room for miscommunication and mental breakdowns like wasted timeouts and delay-of-game penalties. Throw in a few genuine physical mistakes, like allowing a 62-yard kickoff return, an interception at midfield and some breakdowns in the secondary, and it hardly bodes well for the rest of the way.

"It's tough for guys who haven't been active to know all the formations and all the plays," said quarterback Erik Kramer, in defense of the miscues.

When the inexperienced Fabien Bownes ended the Bears' hopes with 24 seconds left by catching a fourth-down pass and stepping out of bounds at the Bears' 15, two yards short of a first down, it may have proved his point. But it certainly cannot make anyone feel any better.

"We're not a great team right now," offensive lineman Andy Heck said. "And you're just not going to beat the division-leading team in their own stadium playing average."

Trailing 21-10 at the half--two Vikings touchdowns were set up by an interception of a Kramer pass by Corey Fuller and a 62-yard kickoff return by David Palmer--the Bears did buck the odds by coming back.

"But if you look at it," said Wannstedt, "those two plays were the difference."

Holding the Vikings to just one first down in the second half and 28 yards in net offense leading into Minnesota's final drive, the Bears' defense put together one of its most impressive stretches of the season.

"Yeah," said Cox, "but giving up 21 points in the first half is really what beat us."

Just the same, after a 59-yard catch by the resurrected Ricky Proehl (nine catches, 132 yards) in the third, and the third field goal of the day by Jeff Jaeger with 3:33 remaining in the game, the Bears led 22-21 and winning was certainly within the realm of possibility against a team that had won its last five.

Working against the Bears, however, was Brad Johnson, who has now led the division-leading Vikings to six victories this season by a combined 27 points, including a three-point victory Sept. 7 at Soldier Field, also secured on their last drive.

This time there were no big plays, simply a methodical nine-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard plunge by Leroy Hoard, ate up 2:39 and swallowed the Bears' defense.

"I don't want to hear one thing about how great we did to start the second half," said Mark Thomas, who left the field in tears after a solid job filling in at end for John Thierry. "The game was on the line, and we didn't get it done.

"The way we played the whole second half, everybody felt we were playing like we were early in the year in the first halves of games. We got two straight turnovers, we were shutting out guys three and out. We were doing everything we needed to do. They had the ball on the 25 and had to go 75 yards. We knew what we had to do, and I don't think there was any question. We thought we'd (hold them to) three and out. Guys were excited. We knew the game was in our hands."

Unfortunately for the team possessing the second-worst record in the NFL, another opportunity would be wasted. "Up until that last drive,' said tackle Carl Simpson, "we looked like contenders instead of pretenders. But we beat ourselves again."

"Right now," said Thomas, "we're doing everything we can not to win. . . . This losing is just getting to be habit-forming, like winning is habit-forming, and we're going the wrong way."

So what is left to accomplish with six games remaining?

"The way I look at it right now," said Kramer, "is that it's part of a weeding-out process of who's going to stay and fight and who's going to give up. And with the guys we have in there right now, it looks to me like I'd still be willing to go to war with any of them.

"That's how I look at these games. At this point, we're not even capable of having a winning season, but we can come out and fight every week. The first thing you have to do is love this game."

It has to be getting harder all the time.