When the Bears stormed to a 7-1 start this year, they never dreamed that they'd be watching the playoffs from home. But that's exactly where they'll be after a deflating final day of the season.
Needing a win over the Lions Sunday coupled with a Vikings loss to the Packers later in the day to earn a wildcard berth, the Bears stayed alive for a few hours by beating Detroit 26-24 but were eliminated from playoff contention when Minnesota edged Green Bay 37-34.
The Bears were on their team buses en route to Halas Hall after landing at O'Hare Airport when Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with no time remaining to send Minnesota into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the NFC.
By losing to the Vikings, the Packers gave the Bears and their fans another reason to loathe them. But even though the Bears finished a respectable 10-6, they know they have no one to blame but themselves, especially after losing to Minnesota at the Metrodome Dec. 9.
In their win Sunday, the Bears won the turnover battle 4-0 and cruised to a 20-3 lead late in the first half. But they had to sweat out a 26-24 nail-biter in part because their offense was forced to settle for three field goals after starting drives at the Detroit 24, 23 and 13 following takeaways.
"There are a lot of statistics, but one that means the most is turnover ratio," said coach Lovie Smith. "We were plus-four today and we needed all of those. On the other side of the football, with those takeaways you want to get points on the board. You need to get touchdowns and we weren't happy about getting field goals, but every point mattered right up until the end."
The defense generated three of the Bears' four takeaways but let the Lions back in the game by allowing three 80-yard touchdown drives, all culminating in Matthew Stafford TD passes.
After spotting the Lions a 3-0 lead on Jason Hanson's 44-yard field goal midway through the first quarter, the Bears scored 10 points in a 1:34 span late in the period to take a 10-3 lead.
Earl Bennett turned a short swing pass into a 60-yard touchdown, racing down the left sideline after picking up a great block by Brandon Marshall, who sealed off cornerback Ron Bartell.
Joe Anderson followed by forcing a Joique Bell fumble on the ensuing kickoff that was recovered by Eric Weems at the Detroit 24, setting up Olindo Mare's 33-yard field goal.
The Bears defense then got into the act, generating two takeaways in a 1:23 span late in the second quarter. First, Israel Idonije swatted the ball out of Stafford's hands and Julius Peppers returned the fumble six yards to the Detroit 10.
The offense converted the turnover into Matt Forte's one-yard touchdown run, enabling the Bears to extend their lead to 17-3 with 3:26 left in the second quarter. Playing on a sore ankle, Forte rushed for 103 yards on 24 carries.
The defense then got the ball back two plays later when Stafford's overthrown pass intended for Tony Scheffler was intercepted by Tim Jennings, who returned it 31 yards to the Detroit 23.
After picking up only one yard on three plays, the Bears settled for Mare's 40-yard field goal, widening the margin to 20-3 with 1:49 remaining in the half.
But Stafford responded by capping back-to-back 80-yard drives with touchdown passes of 25 yards to Kris Durham down the left sideline with :12 left in the half and 10 yards to Will Heller midway through the third quarter as the Lions cut the deficit to 20-17.
Detroit provided another gift late in the third quarter when Mikel Leshoure failed to grasp a handoff from Stafford and Major Wright recovered the fumble at the Detroit 13.
But the Bears offense once again failed to get into the end zone, and Mare's 28-yard field goal made it 23-17 late in the third quarter.
The Bears had first-and-goal at the Detroit 4 on their next possession, but were forced to settle for Mare's 20-yard field goal, making it 26-17 early in the fourth quarter.
Stafford responded by capping a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Brian Robiskie, drawing the Lions to within 26-24 with 6:55 to play.
Cutler completed 18 of 31 passes for 257 yards with one touchdown and a 95.8 passer rating. But his biggest play may have been a 19-yard scramble to the Detroit 34 on third-and-three with just over three minutes left in the game that helped the Bears run out the clock.
"That was a huge run, and he's capable of that," Smith said. "He's a great athlete. He can beat you with his legs. You normally have to play man in that situation and if you break a lot of times there's room for a big run in that situation, and that might have been the biggest play of the game."