DETROIT – Brian Urlacher finished dressing Sunday afternoon and made a beeline through a group of waiting reporters, saying nothing more than wishing Bears beat writers a pleasant trip back to Chicago.
As it turns out, the Bears’ charter back to O’Hare International Airport on Sunday evening would be the final team flight after their playoff hopes were deflated when Minnesota topped Green Bay to grab the NFC’s final playoff spot.
A 26-24 Bears win over the Lions at Ford Field kept the Bears’ postseason hopes alive – but only temporarily. As has become customary throughout a season that started with so much promise but that ended in disappointment for the fifth time in the past six years, defense again played a serious role.
Even playing without the face of its unit – Urlacher – the Bears’ defense was again their identity Sunday. The unit forced three Detroit turnovers and provided the offense a host of scoring opportunities. As those chances led, for the most part, to a collection of Olindo Mare field goals rather than touchdowns, the defense again quickly became the story.
“[Forcing turnovers] is our identity – that’s who we are as a defense,” defensive end Israel Idonije said. “We expect that from us – we go into every game expecting three takeaways. That is our standard.”
The Bears led the NFL in takeaways this season with 40 – a number that grew Sunday after the defense forced two Matthew Stafford fumbles and an interception. But as opportunistic as the defense was, the Bears’ offense turned only one of the takeaways into a touchdown.
Even with the takeaways, the Bears’ defense wasn’t dominant. Despite jumping out to a 20-3 lead, the Bears gave up a late first-half touchdown when Tim Jennings was beat down the sideline. In the second half, Detroit used a pair of 80-yard scoring drives to cut the deficit to 26-24, keeping things interesting.
The Bears struggled at times with missed tackles and had blown coverages, but the defense never lost hope.
Protecting the two-point lead, the defense recovered, forcing the Lions to punt and limiting the productivity of receiver Calvin Johnson, who fell short in his efforts to become the first receiver in NFL history to gain 2,000 yards in a single season. Johnson’s five catches for 72 yards was his worst outing in nine weeks.
While the Bears’ win wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, a defense that might look different next year either in personnel or in scheme depending on if coach Lovie Smith returns, again did what it needed to do.
“We didn’t get the stops we wanted to,” defensive tackle Henry Melton said. “We got the big stop at the end, but we let some points slip away that we shouldn’t have. We made the game a little closer than it should have been, but I think it was a good showing by us today.”