"We didn't play well enough to win today," Smith said after his team finished 11-6. "Carolina, give them credit. They wanted it more than we did today, found a way to pull it out."
"It feels like crap right now," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said after the Panthers piled up 434 total yards on the league's second-ranked defense and never trailed.
"Disappointing. But I guess you could look at the bright side and say we're a young team and all that good stuff. It's going to hurt for a while."
The Bears' defensive pride was wounded most. They came into the game having allowed only two touchdowns at home in their previous 81 drives, and gave up fewer points at home (61) than any team since the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, allowed TD passes from Delhomme to Smith of 58 yards in the first quarter, 39 yards in the third quarter and a 1-yard Delhomme-to-Kris Mangum fourth-quarter TD toss.
"It kind of reminds me a little bit about what happened against Cleveland and Cincinnati, was giving up the big plays," Rivera said.
In those games, the Bears had little offense to counter, but they made a game of it Sunday because Grossman threw for 192 yards on 17-of-41 and one TD with an interception.
"They did a great job of mixing up blitzes and looks and things," Grossman said of Carolina's third-ranked defense. "It took me a while to get adjusted to seeing exactly what their plan was."
Grossman misfired on his first five passes and the Bears trailed 13-0 before he could catch fire.
Charles Tillman had fallen 55 seconds into the game and Delhomme connected on a wide-open 58-yarder along the Bears' sideline to Smith, had who caught 14 passes for 169 yards in the teams' regular-season meeting, a 13-3 Bears win.
It was just one of several bizarre negative plays involving the Bears' defense on the day. Tillman also raced onto the field at the last second on Mangum's fourth-quarter TD catch when there was confusion over who should be on the field, and Smith's 39-yard, third-quarter TD catch came against little-used cornerback Chris Thompson when he had to come onto the field due to injuries to safeties Mike Brown and Chris Harris; Thompson got tangled up with Smith and fell on the play.
"Crazy stuff was happening, stuff that hasn't happened all year," Bears defensive end Alex Brown said.
John Kasay made field goals of 20 and 38 yards -- the 20-yarder after simultaneous possession was ruled on a 46-yard Smith catch with Tillman also holding it. The score could have been worse if not for Urlacher's second-quarter interception at the Bears' 10.
"We had a chance at the end of the football game to win it," Smith pointed out.
The Bears had three possessions in the fourth quarter after Mangum caught a 1-yard play-action TD pass and Kasay hit the upright on the conversion, leaving the score 29-21. But one drive ended with a three-and-out, one at the Panthers' 37 after Grossman threw an interception to Ken Lucas and the final one when Grossman threw incomplete to Muhsin Muhammad with 43 seconds to play on fourth-and-one at the Bears' 45.
No one was blaming Grossman in the post-game locker room, however. The defense knew where to fix the blame.
"Steve Smith, that's what happened to us," Urlacher said.
Adrian Peterson scored on a 1-yard second-quarter TD run after Grossman went 5-of-6 passing on a 67-yard drive to get them within 13-7. And after Kasay made a 37-yard field goal just before halftime, Grossman threw a 1-yard play-action TD pass to tight end Desmond Clark to end a 68-yard drive and cut the deficit to 16-14. He also threw for 55 yards on a 66-yard, fourth-quarter drive that ended with fullback Jason McKie barreling in for a 3-yard TD with 12:23 left in the game to make it 23-21.
Yet Smith and Delhomme were there each time with an answer as the Bears' defense faltered. The pass rush on Delhomme wasn't close to what it had been in the earlier game and the coverage porous despite the fact a complementary threat from running back DeShaun Foster didn't exist in the second half because he suffered a broken right ankle after gaining 54 yards.
"It starts up front," said Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who had spouted off during the week about the defense deserving more respect. "They were running one- and two-receiver routes and we weren't able to get to Delhomme as well as we should.
"For some reason, we weren't covering well. We didn't play good defense from top to bottom."
The 434 total net yards was the most the Bears allowed since giving up 486 in a blowout loss last November to the Colts.
The Bears became the third NFC team in a decade to lose at home in the divisional playoffs while the Panthers (13-5) advanced to play at Seattle in the NFC title game next Sunday.
"We got a lot of things accomplished this year as whole," Smith said. "I think we made a lot of progress with our football team.
"It's tough when you end this way."