With the way the NFC is shaping up, a 10-6 record should be good enough to earn a playoff berth. The teams currently in charge of the two wildcard spots, the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, both have 8-5 records. In the final three weeks, Atlanta will face the Saints on the road, while Detroit will face the Packers on the road. So, 10-6 looks like it will be good enough.
Despite losing two in a row, the Chicago Bears were in a good position to secure one of those playoff spots. They had tiebreakers over both Atlanta and Detroit heading into yesterday's game against the Denver Broncos. Everything was working in Chicago's favor when the two-minute warning came. The Bears were ahead and had the ball. All they had to do was run out the clock.
It was 2nd and 10 coming out of the break. The Bears lined up at their own 49-yard line with Caleb Hanie under center. Two tight ends were on the left edge of the line, with FB Tyler Clutts a few yards behind them. RB Marion Barber was deep in the backfield.
RB Marion Barber
Ron Chenoy/US Presswire
At the snap, Hanie hands the ball to Barber running off-tackle left. RG Chris Spencer pulls and leads the play. He blocks LB Joe Mays on the edge and Barber bounces outside. S Rahim Moore closes to make the tackle, yet Barber breaks outside again. He then runs away from LB D.J. Williams and dives out of bounds. The clock stops with 1:55 left in the game.
The Bears ended up punting the ball after a three-and-out, giving the Broncos 56 seconds to move the ball into field goal territory for a game-tying field goal. Barber then fumbled in overtime when Chicago was in field goal range, yet him running out of bounds was the more egregious error.
Consider the 40-second play clock. Had Barber stayed in bounds, the play clock would have begun at about 1:50 after the play. The following third-down snap would have occurred with about 1:10 on the clock. After running that play, which would have taken about 10 seconds, the Bears could have run the clock all the way down to 20 seconds before punting the ball. With hang time and a return, the Broncos would have had roughly 10 seconds to move into field goal range with no timeouts.
It took Tim Tebow and company 56 seconds to set up a 59-yarder, so it's extremely doubtful he would have been able to do the same in 10 seconds.
Barber's gaffe cost the Bears the game and makes the playoffs extremely improbable. With two games left, the Bears will have to surpass two teams, and beat out the Dallas Cowboys, who have an identical 7-5 record. At the minimum, Chicago will have to win out, and then get help on top of that. Yet the Bears head to Green Bay in two weeks, and anyone who thinks they can win that game is just fooling himself.
Mathematically this team is not out of it. Realistically though, the season is over.
Yet here's my issue: Why even hand the ball to Barber? If running the clock out was so important, why even give your running back the opportunity to stop the clock, or even fumble? A first down ices the game, I get that, but just kneeling for three straight plays would have given the Broncos the ball with 10 seconds or less. Chicago's coaches knew Denver would be stacking the box to stop the run, so the likelihood of picking up a first down wasn't that great to begin with. Why not just kneel on it and trust that your defense can stop the Broncos from gaining 50 yards on one play, and getting out of bounds, all in nine seconds or less?
Barber's mistake cost the Bears the season but he should have never been put in that position.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.