The Bears didn't look like a playoff team Sunday, but that wasn't a prerequisite for defeating the Lions.
The visitors were good enough to improve to 13-2 with a 26-21 victory over the 2-13 Lions, who fought back from a 10-point, second-half deficit to regain the lead and didn't relinquish it until 2:50 remained in the game. Then, the underdogs almost stole it back on the final play of the game, but wide receiver Mike Williams couldn't hang on to a Jon Kitna desperation heave into the end zone that cornerback Devin Hester got a hand on.
The closeness of the game, and the Bears' continued ineffectiveness on defense would be a concern for any playoff-bound team. For the fifth straight game the Bears allowed more than 300 yards of total offense after holding each of their first 10 opponents under 300. Kitna, the Lions' journeyman quarterback, threw for 283 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, while posting a passer rating of 100.5.
Especially in the third quarter, the Bears did not appear to be playoff worthy, as they allowed the Lions a pair of unanswered touchdowns that gave the NFC North cellar dwellers a 21-17 lead over the division champions, who were the first team in the NFL to clinch a postseason berth.
It was the second straight game in which the defense, minus some key starters because of injury and suspension, was toasted in the second half. The Bears held the Lions to just 90 yards in the first half, but were sliced for 237 in the second half. A week earlier the Buccaneers strafed the Bears for 260 after halftime.
"In the second half they got more yards than we would like for them to, but that happens sometimes," said Bears coach Lovie Smith, who rested some starters late in the game. "Our plan going into the game was to play the guys as long as we needed to, or as long as we possibly could. We wanted to get a win in the worst way, but we wanted to take a look at a few other players. We were able to do that on the offensive side. Defensively, we weren't able to as much as we would have liked."
Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera hedged when was asked if his unit was ready for the postseason.
"The mentality, the attitude, the way it goes in the playoffs, is completely different from the mentality right now," Rivera said, regarding a game that wasn't vital for either side. "I don't want to say you're playing for nothing, but ... before this game we were 12-2. Having been a former player, you kind of look at it like, everything's clinched, what do you do? How do you approach it? Not to make excuses for anybody, but just from my personal experience, I know it's tough for the guys to get up for a situation like this. I think it's tough for the guys to maintain their focus."
But the Bears played without cornerback Charles Tillman (back) and nose tackle Tank Johnson (one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team), and they had earlier lost Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown and tackle Tommie Harris to season-ending injuries. It remains to be seen if they have enough manpower to regain the form they showed through the first 11 weeks of the season, when they had the NFL's No. 1 defense statistically.
There's only so much a team can take and -- fortunately for the Lions -- they're almost at the end.
They're down to the final week, the final three days of practice, the final game of another painful, agonizing, losing season.
And there is no way the one remaining game -- on New Year's Eve in Dallas -- can be any more painful or any more agonizing than the loss they experienced Sunday at the hands of the Chicago Bears.
Quarterback Jon Kitna made a final desperation heave as the final seconds ticked off the game clock. Wide receiver Mike Williams positioned himself, jumped and momentarily had the ball between his hands.
And then it fell to the turf in Ford Field. Maybe Chicago defender Devin Hester got a hand on it, maybe Williams just didn't make the play. But the ball got away from him and with it went the Lions' last chance to make the final week of the season just a little more bearable. They lost another one, 26-21.
They will get back to work after a two-day break for the Christmas holiday and turn their attention to the Cowboys, facing the likelihood their current 2-13 record will end up as another 2-14 season.
Whether it's 2-14 or 3-13, they face the final game of the season knowing there has been little -- if any -- progress in the first season under coach Rod Marinelli and they are as far -- maybe farther -- from contending than they were when owner William Clay Ford hired Matt Millen as the team president in 2001.
Fifteen games into Millen's sixth season, the Lions have a 23-72 record. They have lost 10 or more games each season. Their best record under his direction was a 6-10 in 2004. And there is little to indicate they have stocked the team with players capable of winning -- even if they can stay healthy -- next year or the year after.
Millen doesn't say that, of course. He has not had an on-the-record session with the media in weeks.
And Marinelli doesn't say it either. His approach is to work hard and if that doesn't work, work harder. Perhaps that's why the loss to the Bears hurt the way it did, even though he was sending undrafted rookies and fourth- or fifth-string running backs to compete with the NFC's best team.
"I've just been pushing these guys and pushing them and pushing them and prodding them," said Marinelli. "I'm trying to get blood out of the turnip, man. I'm just doing everything I can to get these guys going because I believe in them.
"They've been working and working. I tell you, you can't see it but the amount of effort these guys give all week long ... and there were no excuses by anybody.
"But we had a couple penalties on us. That was not smart. You can't hit a quarterback out of bounds. I mean, you can't do it. But I've got to show better poise."
That, of course, is the Marinelli approach. Defensive tackle Cleveland Pinkney hit Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman as he going out of bounds, costing the Lions 10 yards and a first down, and Marinelli takes the blame.
He has one more week to go, then a long off-season of changes before it starts again next summer.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Thanks to some help during the penultimate weekend of the season, the 7-8 Packers still have an outside shot of landing the final wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs.
Even if Sunday's game at Chicago brings the curtain down on their season, Brett Favre's teammates and head coach Mike McCarthy don't expect it to be the quarterback's farewell in his storied career.
"I see no signs of Brett leaving, honestly," linebacker Nick Barnett said.
Barnett noted after the Packers rallied late for a 9-7 win over Minnesota on Dec. 21 that Favre's demeanor heading into the game belied that of a player who some suspected would be playing in front of the home fans at Lambeau Field a final time.
"He hasn't told us. I think if it was his last (home) game, he would have told us," Barnett said. "I see him coming back, especially with so much potential we have coming into this next year. I think we have potential to do (better things)."
McCarthy echoed Barnett's sentiment, saying, "I didn't view it that way," when asked if he took the game to be the 37-year-old Favre's last in Wisconsin.
Unlike Favre's Lambeau finale last year, when he was pulled from the game against Seattle to a standing ovation and waved to the crowd at game's end as though he would be retiring, the recent outing was absent of fanfare. What might have been a symbolic gesture of his intentions, Favre refrained from waving the white towel he held in his right hand as he ran out from the tunnel during pregame introductions.
McCarthy wants Favre to stick around for 2007.
"That's really a decision he's fully going to make after the season," McCarthy said. "He's under contract (through 2010), and we'd like to have him back. We're going to take the time and talk about it after the season."
Favre recently suggested that he would make a decision about his future much sooner than he did last off-season, when he waited until April to notify the team he would be returning. He has repeatedly said that his love for playing hasn't waned, and he doesn't feel his physical skills deteriorating.
Although Favre has struggled of late with only four touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the last six games, the league's youngest team is ending the season strong, riding a season-high three-game winning streak into Chicago. The extra incentive for Favre to return next season is becoming the league's all-time leader for touchdown passes -- he trails Dan Marino's mark of 420 by seven.
"I'm hoping that he comes back. But, you never know. It's really going to be up to him," receiver Donald Driver said. "Right now, I think he's coming back."