Despite losing Sunday's season finale to the Packers 35-16 at Soldier Field, the Bears secured the third and final wild card berth in the NFC playoffs by virtue of the Cardinals' 18-7 loss to the Rams in Los Angeles.
As the seventh seed, the Bears (8-8) will open the postseason next Sunday against the NFC South champion Saints (12-4) in New Orleans, with kickoff scheduled for 3:40 p.m. (CT) on CBS, Nickelodeon and Amazon Prime.
The Bears entered Week 17 needing a win or an Arizona loss to make the playoffs for the second time in Matt Nagy's three seasons as coach. Nagy didn't know that the Rams had defeated the Cardinals until he was informed by a media relations assistant while walking off the field.
"This is my first time where you lose a game but yet to find out that you're in [the playoffs]," Nagy said. "So the message to the team is this: It's OK to feel like crap right now. We put a lot of time and effort and energy into winning this football game and it sucks when you lose.
"But that said, we feel it tonight, understand it, but no one is going to take away from what these players did to work back these last three weeks to put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs."
Just four short weeks ago, a deflating defeat to Detroit gave the Bears their first six-game losing streak since 2002. With a 5-7 record, some playoff predictors estimated their chances of reaching the postseason at a miniscule eight percent. But the Bears valiantly rebounded, remaining in contention with three straight wins over the Texans, Vikings and Jaguars.
Although Nagy was still clearly disappointed immediately after Sunday's loss, he expressed pride in how the Bears bounced back from their six-game skid to save their season.
"You guys are just getting me right now like an hour after the game, so I apologize if I'm not all balloons everywhere," Nagy said. "But tomorrow it's going to be energetic. There's going to be some juice. The guys are going to heal up. They're going to take care of their bodies. They're going to get mentally right, and, shoot, let's go. That's where that fire comes from. No one can take that away from us, and I'm proud of our guys for that."
Things looked promising early Sunday, when David Montgomery's 2-yard touchdown run on the game's opening possession gave the Bears a 7-0 lead and capped a methodical 14-play, 60-yard drive.
But Aaron Rodgers took over from there, throwing touchdown passes on the Packers' first three possessions and a total of four in the game—exactly like he did in a 41-25 win over the Bears Nov. 29 in Green Bay.
Unlike that first meeting, however, the Bears closed to within one score at 21-16—on a pair of Cairo Santos field goals—and had a chance to produce a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. But on fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 24, Mitchell Trubisky's pass intended for Allen Robinson II in the right flat was broken up.
The Packers followed by scoring touchdowns on their next two possessions, increasing their lead to 35-16 on Aaron Jones' 4-yard run with 3:47 to play and Rodgers' 6-yard pass to Davante Adams with 2:56 remaining. The final TD came after former Bears safety Adrian Amos intercepted a Trubisky pass over the middle.
Sunday's game was decided in the red zone, with the Packers scoring four touchdowns on four possessions and the Bears mustering just one TD on five drives inside-the-20.
"You can't play the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers and kick field goals," Nagy said. "We have to get touchdowns. There's no other way."
It wasn't just a game of missed opportunities for the offense, however. Bears defenders Eddie Jackson, Barkevious Mingo and Kindle Vildor all dropped potential interceptions in the second half.
In the first half, Rodgers completed 10 of 10 passes for 155 yards with three TDs and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. The future Hall of Famer powered the Packers to a 21-13 halftime lead with scoring passes of three yards to tight end Robert Tonyan, 72 yards to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and 13 yards to tight end Dominique Daffney.
Rodgers has now won 18 of the last 20 games he's started and finished against the Bears and has thrown 34 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in his last 13 contests versus Chicago. His 147.9 passer rating Sunday was his second highest in 26 career starts against the Bears.
Trubisky completed 33 of 42 passes for 252 yards with one interception and an 81.7 passer rating. Montgomery rushed for 69 yards and one TD on 22 carries and had nine receptions for 63 yards. Darnell Mooney led the Bears in receiving with 11 receptions for 93 yards.
With the game tied 7-7 early in the second quarter, Demetrius Harris forced Green Bay's Tavon Austin to fumble a punt, and DeAndre Houston-Carson recovered at the Packers' 20. But the Bears were forced to settle for Santos' 30-yard field goal, taking a 10-7 lead.
After two more Rodgers TD passes made it 21-10, the Bears closed the gap to 21-13 on Santos' 27-yard field goal with :03 remaining in the first half.
In the first half, Trubisky completed 14 of 17 passes for 84 yards and an 87.3 passer rating, while Montgomery rushed for 44 yards and one TD on 13 carries.
The Packers had a chance to extend their lead on the opening possession of the second half. But a wide open Valdes-Scantling dropped a sure touchdown pass on a post pattern, and after Khalil Mack sacked Rodgers, Green Bay was eventually forced to punt for the first time in the game.
Mooney followed by leaping high over a defender to snare a 53-yard pass from Trubisky, setting up Santos' 20-yard field goal. The kick cut the deficit to 21-16 and enabled Santos to set a team record with 27 straight field goals without a miss. But that was as close as the Bears would get.
The Packers (13-3) had already clinched the NFC North title, but with Sunday's win they secured the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Green Bay has now won 19 of the last 22 meetings with the Bears since 2010, including 10 of the last 11 at Soldier Field.