MINNEAPOLIS – About this time a year ago the Bears were leaving TCF Bank Stadium having lost 13-9 to the Minnesota Vikings, failing a final time under Marc Trestman and leaving questions as to whether Trestman, GM Phil Emery or team president Ted Phillips - or some combination thereof - might be relieved of their duties (Phillips was not).
Coach, general manager and president didn’t leave TCF this time in any job jeopardy. But few Bears (5-9) likely could say the same after the embarrassing 38-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings (9-5) that finally extinguished the playoff thoughts the Bears have all but snuffed out the past two Sundays.
In something befitting BizzaroWorld, the team that slunk out of Minneapolis last year played a better football game than the one that left late Sunday afternoon. This one has lost four of its last five, this game by more points (21) than the combined margins (17) of all five losses since seemingly righting themselves after the 0-3 start to the season.
“Other teams are wanting it more than we do, and that’s the end of the story,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee. “When you want something, you go and take it. Right now, everybody’s not trying to take it; everybody’s just trying to fill it out.
“Me and everybody else has just got to look in the mirror and point at ourselves. We can’t point at each other. What can we have done better to help our team win. That’s what it all about.”
The Bears were in search of an identity for much of the early season. They thought they’d established one as fighters and finishers after the rebound wins over Oakland and Kansas City. Those have become hollow, distant echoes, the exceptions rather than the rules.
The Bears have on an almost weekly basis in John Fox’s first year to be a team few would confuse with fighters or finishers, or even an average football team at this point.
Their identity now?
“We’re going to find out,” said quarterback Jay Cutler, “We're going to find out. We’re going to find out where we’re at with two games left. We’ll find out who in that locker room has character and wants to finish and who doesn’t.”
Sunday's catastrophe may have answered some of those "find outs," and the answers were ominous. Players already had pegged the last four games as a collective test of character; the Washington loss was one, this was another.
This loss was one thing; the Vikings right now are a better football team than the Bears. It was the manner of the loss, the things that a seemingly demoralized team did and didn’t do after the stunning losses to San Francisco and Washington.
In another in a string of these kinds of games, the Bears destroyed themselves, this time taking what was left of their season with it.
Three times the Bears had chances this season to reach .500 and position themselves for a genuine playoff push. All three times they lost. Sunday was a situation in which the Bears could not be eliminated from the playoffs if they won the game; they did not.
For all of the progress shown by Jay Cutler, the game marked the 12th time in 14 games the offense has been unable to score more than 23 points. The defense has been unable to prevent demoralizing long opening touchdowns in six of the last nine games.
The offense had the football at midfield to start the first and third quarters by virtue of exceptional special teams plays: a 49-yard return of the opening kickoff, a recovered surprise onside kick for the second. Both those possessions were undone by sacks, with a holding penalty on center Hroniss Grasu nullifying a 35-yard run by Matt Forte on the Bears’ first snap of the game; somehow fitting.
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That missed chance to wrest momentum from the outset was exceeded in the third quarter when right tackle Kyle Long was beaten on a straight rush by defensive end Brian Robison, whose strip-sack of Jay Cutler cost the Bears the football and yet another platinum opportunity to do more than just play out the string, in a game or this season.
If there were a need to choose two possessions emblematic of the 2015 seasons, start with those.
A familiar and deadly pattern began almost immediately Sunday in what has become something of a defensive template for Bears failures as this season has wound down: the inability to stop numbing, morale-sapping long drives on opponents’ first possessions.
Besides surrendering a touchdown after the lost fumble to start the half – which combined with the squandered field position to put the Bears down 24-7 instead of perhaps standing 17-14 – the defense allowed the Vikings methodically, almost effortlessly, to go 93 yards in 13 plays for their first touchdown.
That made the Vikings the sixth Bears opponent in the last nine to drive at least 68 yards on their first possession for a touchdown. They also became the 11th of the Bears’ 14 opponents to outscore them in the first quarter, with the Bears 3-8 in those games and now very much a team not good enough, or tough enough mentally or physically, to take the game back.
“It doesn’t matter who we were going to play today,” Cutler said. “We weren’t going to win with our offensive football.”
Cutler need not have limited himself only to the offense.