GREEN BAY, Wis. _ The Bears' dream of a late-season miracle playoff run ended Sunday where their dreams end almost every year.
They died in Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers when cornerback Mike McKenzie gambled and jumped a pass pattern run by Bears receiver Dez White for a fourth-quarter interception of Kordell Stewart. As McKenzie ran downfield 90 yards for a touchdown with 9:16 to play and a 26-14 Green Bay lead, you could swear you almost saw the white flags rising along the Bears sideline while exit doors opened for the coaching staff.
Bears playoff talk was buried for good a few minutes later when Desmond Clark lost a fumble on a pass that insured a 34-21 Packers win. The Vikings' 34-7 win over Seattle sealed their playoff elimination.
"The big return at the end, the interception for the return, that was a point where you think you are going to end up being, at worst, two down," Bears coach Dick Jauron said. "And all of the sudden, the whole thing is turned around."
So was the rest of the Bears' season and possibly the future of a franchise with one playoff berth the last nine years.
"It kind of stunned me for a minute," Stewart said. "We had a chance."
They have none now with a 5-8 record after letting a 14-0 lead disintegrate as the Packers ran off 34 straight points. It left the Bears three games behind the Minnesota Vikings and owning no tiebreaker edges on anyone.
Instead, they will look ahead to announcing Wednesday whether rookie quarterback Rex Grossman will start next Sunday against Minnesota, finishing with their heads held high and awaiting word on the fate of their coaching staff.
"All we can do is go out and win, try to win games," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "I love coach Jauron and I'm not going to talk about that issue. If we as players go out and win, then that's going to take care of itself."
They missed the chance to take care of everything themselves when old antagonist Brett Favre rallied his team from an early mistake. The Packers' defense did the rest, clamping down on running back Anthony Thomas and holding the Bears' running game to 44 yards on 20 carries, 22 of those yards coming on Stewart scrambles.
"They did an outstanding job, particularly against our run game," Jauron said. "And that was one of the factors that led to our inconsistency on offense. We just didn't run the ball with any authority or any consistency today. Therefore we didn't stay on the field very much.
"And when you don't stay on the field, it's a long day, particularly with their talent on the offensive side. We gave them enough opportunities and they took advantage of them."
Stewart, who was 17-of-40 for 256 yards, had hit Marty Booker behind McKenzie for a 61-yard TD pass with 1:46 left in the first quarter. Then 56 seconds later the Bears led 14-0 when Lance Briggs benefited from Favre's poor attempt to intentionally ground the ball while under pursuit from Phillip Daniels and R.W. McQuarters. Briggs intercepted Favre's duck of a pass in the open field and ran 45 yards for the 14-0 Bears lead.
"It was just hanging there. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, you know what I mean, and got six out of it," Briggs said.
Good fortune and big plays ended at this point for the Bears.
Favre began working his magic after Green Bay's first four drives ended in three punts and Briggs' interception. He directed the Packers to Ryan Longwell field goals of 24, 38, 35 and 45 yards and threw a 22-yard second-quarter touchdown pass to Javon Walker.
Favre wound up 22-of-33 for 210 yards and for the first time this year the Packers won when he threw for more than 200 yards. He completed passes to nine receivers, including seven for 58 yards to his backs.
"Brett just got going, and when he gets going he gets in the zone and he goes to who's hot," said Packers wide receiver Robert Ferguson.
The Bears made an attempt to stall Green Bay's rally near the end of the first half and start of the second. But wide receiver Justin Gage dropped an attempt at a lunging 48-yard touchdown bomb, then Booker had a ball bounce off his hands and into McKenzie's for an interception on a play at the Packers' 48.
It provided Green Bay the ball for a 35-yard drive to Longwell's 35-yard field goal with 6:56 left in the third quarter to give the Packers a 16-14 lead. Longwell's 45-yard field goal with 47 seconds left in the third quarter ended an eight-play, 36-yard and gave the Packers a 19-14 lead.
Then Stewart threw the fateful interception on a third-and-eight play from the Packers' 16. A field goal at that point with 9:31 to play would have got the Bears within 19-17.
"He anticipated me throwing it," Stewart said of McKenzie. "He made a good play."
When Clark fumbled a 5-yard pass that Hannibal Navies recovered for Green Bay at the Packers' 37 with 6:05 to play, it became a matter of running clock.
The Packers added an Ahman Green 2-yard TD run with 2:31 left after Stewart had been sacked for a 9-yard loss at his own 1.
The Bears answered with an inconsequential 88-yard Jerry Azumah touchdown return. They wound up with 21 points, but their offense could take credit for only seven.
Left to look forward to are Minnesota, Washington, Kansas City and the 2004 Draft.
"We try to win every game," Brian Urlacher said when he was asked what's left to play for. "It's no different than this one. That's just the way it goes."
It's gone that way for the Bears eight times in the last nine years.