With their defense finally making key stops and the Packers losing another game as well as another quarterback Sunday, everything seemed to be falling into place for the Bears.
But rather than celebrating a win over the Lions that would have put them in sole possession of first place in the NFC North, they left Soldier Field lamenting a frustrating 21-19 loss.
"We kind of beat ourselves," said receiver Alshon Jeffery. "We had a lot of miscues."
The Bears offense failed to take advantage of what was arguably the defense's best performance of the season, generating only two field goals on three drives that reached the Detroit 4, 7 and 9.
"For our offense today and for our team, it was really a day of missed opportunities," said coach Marc Trestman, whose team lost for the fourth time in six games since a 3-0 start.
Returning to start just three weeks after suffering a torn groin muscle, Jay Cutler sustained an ankle injury in the second quarter that limited his effectiveness and mobility. He was eventually replaced by Josh McCown, who entered the game with 2:17 remaining and the Bears trailing 21-13.
McCown promptly marched the offense the length of the field, capping a 10-play, 74-yard drive with an 11-yard TD pass to Brandon Marshall with :40 left, closing the gap to 21-19.
But after a roughing-the-passer penalty on a failed two-point conversion attempt gave the Bears new life and moved the ball to the 1, Matt Forte was stuffed by tackle Nick Fairley on a run up the middle. The Lions then iced the win by recovering Robbie Gould's subsequent onside kick.
The Bears struggled to run the ball all game against a stout Lions defensive front, mustering a season-low 38 yards on 20 carries with Forte being limited to 33 yards on 17 attempts.
The loss dropped the Bears (5-4) into a second-place tie with the Packers (5-4), one game behind the Lions (6-3), who now own the playoff tiebreaker over the Bears due to their season sweep. In losing at home to the Eagles, Green Bay had to turn to quarterback Scott Tolzien after Seneca Wallace, who was replacing the injured Aaron Rodgers, hurt his groin in the first quarter.
Cutler, who hobbled on his sore left ankle throughout the second half, completed 21 of 40 passes for 250 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a 69.8 passer rating in the game. He told reporters that his groin held up OK, but conceded that he was hindered by the ankle injury.
"I just didn't feel like I made some of the throws I wanted to make," Cutler said. "I couldn't move around, couldn't be as mobile. As the game went on, towards those last drives, I tried to step up. Normally I want to run out of there, and I couldn't do it. It just kind of limited us."
Cutler looked magnificent on the game's first possession, completing passes to Marshall on three straight plays for 61 yards highlighted by a 32-yard touchdown. Marshall, who beat cornerback Darius Slay on a post pattern for the TD, appeared to be Cutler's third option on the play.
The Lions answered immediately as Matthew Stafford engineered a 12-play, 85-yard drive capped by a 5-yard TD pass to receiver Kris Durham, who beat Tim Jennings to tie the score 7-7.
After the early success, the Bears offense failed repeatedly to score touchdowns in the red zone. On second-and-goal from the 4 with :31 left in the first half, Cutler's pass was deflected by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and intercepted by linebacker DeAndre Levy in the end zone.
After cutting the deficit to 14-10 on Gould's 25-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, the Bears appeared to score two touchdowns early in the fourth period—but neither one counted.
Chris Conte intercepted Stafford's overthrown pass intended for Johnson and returned it 35 yards to the Detroit 9. On the next play, Forte took a pitch to the left and scampered into the end zone. But the TD was nullified by a holding penalty against left guard Matt Slauson.
On third-and-goal from the 14, Jeffery soared over safety Glover Quin to catch an apparent TD pass in the right corner of the end zone. But after a replay review, referee Bill Leavy overturned the call, ruling that Jeffery lost control of the ball after hitting the ground.
Gould's 32-yard field goal drew the Bears to within 14-13. But the Lions widened the margin to 21-13 on Stafford's 14-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 2:22 to play before the Bears drove the length of the field but ultimately came up one yard short of forcing overtime.