CHICAGO – Hopefully hoping.
That is where the Bears found themselves after Sunday’s 21-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
No longer are the Bears in control of their playoff chances.
No longer are the Bears in contention for an NFC North title.
No longer can Lovie Smith rely on a rivalry win to reverse the Bears’ late-season swoon.
Instead, Smith shifted his focus to the Bears’ final two regular-season games after his team’s latest setback. A pair of wins – along with outside help – could set up a playoff rematch against Green Bay.
“We just have to take care of business,” Smith said, “and hopefully hope that we get another chance.”
Even if the Bears received another opportunity, what reason exists to think they would capitalize?
The Bears (8-6) are in big trouble of missing the playoffs after their fifth loss in the past six games, and Smith’s job security is weakening with every disappointing weekend. On a day when the Packers (10-4) celebrated back-to-back division titles, the Bears slipped behind the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings in the race for the conference’s final playoff berth.
Bothered by the Bears’ latest blunder-filled game, thousands of fans in a sellout crowd of 62,534 walked out of the home finale long before the final whistle. They left after witnessing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throw three touchdown passes to James Jones, while the Bears countered with a touchdown from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall along with a pair of field goals.
They left before the Packers sealed their sixth consecutive win against the Bears and their third consecutive win at Soldier Field. They left before the Bears fell to 1-8 in their past nine games against Green Bay and before the Packers increased their winning streak against division opponents to 12 games.
Say what you will about the Bears’ skid during the past six weeks, but the team’s prolonged struggles against its oldest rival could be the tipping point in whether Smith stays or goes after the season.
When Smith was introduced as the 13th head coach in the history of the Bears in 2004, he outlined three goals in specific order: 1. Beat the Packers. 2. Win the division. 3. Win the Super Bowl.
For almost four years and counting, Smith has been unable to achieve his No. 1 goal.
“Six games – that should tell you,” Smith said regarding his team’s losing streak against the Packers. “We know they’re our rival. You need to beat your rival. We haven’t gotten it done.”
Turnovers and early deficits often have been the reasons for the Bears’ losses against Green Bay, but neither held true Sunday. The Bears grabbed a 7-0 lead in the second quarter when Marshall caught a pass across the middle and knocked down Packers cornerback Casey Hayward with a stiff arm, and the Packers committed two turnovers compared with one by the Bears.
Yet Rodgers dissected the Bears’ defense after a slow start, and the Bears’ offense was forced to settle for field goals on a pair of second-half drives inside the red zone. On one series, Matt Forte was stuffed twice at the 1-yard line. Another series featured two incompletions and a run for no gain by Forte.
Cutler dropped to 1-7 as the Bears’ starting quarterback against the Packers.
“It wears on me,” Cutler said. “It wears on everybody. You don’t want to lose to your rival year-in and year-out. Then it’s not a rivalry anymore. It’s a domination.”
Elsewhere in the stadium’s tunnels, it was a celebration.
Ask Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb, who caught six of Rodgers’ passes for 115 yards.
“This is big,” Cobb said. “To come into a rival’s house and win, clinch your division, and be able to celebrate in their locker room, that’s a great feeling to have.”
It’s a feeling the Bears haven’t enjoyed in too long.
It’s a feeling that could cost Smith when the season reaches its end.
“There’s disappointment,” Smith said. “They’re NFC North champs.
“We have to get to the playoffs a different way. That’s the only thing we can think about right now.”
• Tom Musick covers Chicago professional sports for Shaw Media. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.