The notion that the Bears will be able to flip the intensity switch and elevate their game to playoff level seems far-fetched in light of recent developments. And not just because of the New Year's Eve embarrassment.
This is a team that hasn't won with a complete game against a decent opponent in at least six weeks. There are disturbing signs everywhere, indicating that this could be another Bears team that begins and ends its postseason play on the same day.
The defense, which was starting to show cracks even before Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris suffered a season-ending hamstring injury on Dec. 3, has been no better than mediocre since then. Six straight opponents have piled up more than 325 yards of total offense, including two teams that rank in the bottom third of the league offensively. Over the past six games, the Bears have allowed an average of 365 yards per game, 44 more than the NFL average.
Everyone at Halas Hall dismisses yardage as an inconsequential stat, especially since the Bears no longer rank No. 1 in that statistic as they did the first 11 weeks of the season, when they allowed 251.8 yards per game. They prefer to focus on points allowed, another category in which they led the league as recently as four weeks ago, but they don't anymore.
The Bears haven't held any of their last four opponents under 21 points, allowing an average of 26 per game. Rex Grossman's interceptions gave the Packers 13 points Sunday night on returns for touchdowns, and his performance alone was bad enough to cast serious doubt on the Bears' playoff possibilities.
"The plan was to play Rex into the third quarter," said coach Lovie Smith, who apparently couldn't bear to watch any more after halftime. "After you're having a game like that, I didn't see there was any need to put him back in after an effort like that ... and not just Rex; offensively. You can't turn the ball over like that, (but) we did. It's not our night. We'll try it again another night. I'm grouping all of us together on this game. We all have to play a lot better."
As Smith hinted, the Bears have a lot of problems besides Grossman. Poor pass protection is at least partly to blame for some of Grossman's meltdowns, as it was against Green Bay.
"I played like garbage," said offensive left tackle John Tait, who returned after missing two weeks with a sprained ankle. "I just didn't play well. I have no excuses for the way I played."
The other members of the offensive line could say the same.
In the other three games of its current four-game statistical swoon, the defense can't blame anyone but itself. Grossman didn't turn the ball over at all in any of those games, but the defense still struggled.
The Bears have allowed an average of 294 passing yards over the past four games while only occasionally putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Right end Alex Brown had one of the Bears' two sacks Sunday, giving him a total of two in the past seven games and seven all year. Left end Adewale Ogunleye has 6.5 for the season.
Because of the diminished pass rush — only rookie Mark Anderson has been a threat lately — along with injuries at cornerback and lack of deep help by the safeties, the Bears have been burned by big plays. Although they've permitted just 10 pass plays of 30 yards or longer all season, six have occurred in the last three games.
After the loss to the Packers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said: "We gave up a couple big plays. That was disappointing." It seems Rivera has said that a lot lately.
"I'm a little disappointed we made some big mistakes," he said. "(We had) individual techniques that were busted, a couple plays we didn't play the technique we were supposed to, and we got beat because of it."
Playoff teams shouldn't be making those kinds of mistakes after 17 weeks. What's worse is that the Bears' pass defense was exposed by two unknowns; Ruvell Martin and Carlyle Holiday. Martin came into the game with 14 catches for 240 yards and added seven receptions for 118 against the Bears. Holiday had just four catches for 39 yards in the first 15 games but burned the Bears for 87 yards on five grabs.
How will they fare against receivers that have actually done something in the league?
"We're not concerned about anything," said cornerback Ricky Manning. "We're 13-3 and going to work on some things. We're not keeping our heads down. It's going to be a whole different atmosphere when it counts."
Cornerback Nate Vasher said he was confident the Bears could revert to their earlier form, when they were No. 1 in the NFL in yards and points allowed before a late-season slump.
"The big plays tonight stick out like a sore thumb," Vasher said.
"We just have to get back into that Chicago Bears rhythm," said defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who returned after missing two games because of off-the-field problems. "We'll have a lot more to play for the next time out than we did (Sunday) night."
Going into Sunday night's regular-season finale, the Bears had permitted more than 325 yards of total offense in each of the past five games, and the Packers easily made it six straight hitting the 325 mark with 1 minutes left in the game. None of the Bears' first 10 opponents managed as much as 300.
"Obviously you'd rather go into the playoffs on a high note," Hillenmeyer said. "Maybe it gets over-exaggerated just a little bit just because it's games that haven't mattered in the standings. We still won (the past four games), but obviously if you don't worry about it at all it can be dangerous. The fact of the matter is, whenever we've got our first defense out there, we want to be playing dominant style."
They're still a long way from the form the flashed in the first 11 weeks when they allowed just 251.8 yards of total offense per game.
"Obviously we'd like to go into the playoffs on a positive note, not just with Rex, but the whole team," Turner said. "We weren't as sharp and focused as we need to be. We've got to play better, but it's not just one guy. We have a lot of confidence in Rex and this team that they'll play better."
The season couldn't have been much worse, but the timing for the Lions' third and final win of the year couldn't have been any better.
As miserable as the Lions were in registering their second three-win season in the past five years, their 39-31 victory over the Cowboys at Texas Stadium let the Lions go home happy.
Whether or not the win means they have turned the corner for coach Rod Marinelli, the Lions don't have to go into the offseason haunted by the specter of another defeat.
Never mind that they have lost 10 games or more in each of the last six seasons. Never mind that they have only once won as many as six games during that same span. Never mind that they will be picking second in the draft for the second time in six years.
The fact is, the Lions, in the span of the past six years, have become the least successful team in the NFL. During that time, they have won only 24 games while losing 72, a remarkably consistent record of futility.
But for a few hours Sunday afternoon and again Monday, as they cleaned out their lockers and headed into the offseason, they could feel good about themselves and what they had pulled off against the playoff-bound but rapidly fading Cowboys.
"I don't know how big a win it is," quarterback Jon Kitna said, "but every win is big in this league. It's hard to win in this league.
"To win your last game, to win on the road — for this team, I don't know how long it's been. All those things hopefully give you a kick-start and give you a little bit of hope going into next season."
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the game was not the final score but the fact the Lions competed as hard as they did at Dallas with nothing meaningful to gain.
"I think we saw some competitive character come out," Kitna said. "And I think Coach Marinelli is getting this team to where they are reflecting him. You have that competitive character and drive, and you play hard regardless of what things look like."
If that were truly the result of the final game of 2006, it could be a sign of better things to come in 2007.
Marinelli, who walks with a noticeable limp, has a degenerative hip condition. He previously had replacement surgery on his right hip and is scheduled to have the same procedure performed Friday on his left hip.
Marinelli declined to elaborate on the situation, other than to say he expects to be back at work in a very short period of time.
Because of the rest and rehabilitation required, however, the Lions had to decline an opportunity to coach one of the two teams playing in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
Williams, who stands 6 foot 5, was listed on the Lions program at 228 pounds. It is doubtful he was seldom, if ever, down to 228 pounds during the 2006 season, although that still would have been eight pounds above the weight Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz ordered at the start of the season.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Williams indicated he wants to stay with the Lions but that he wants an accommodation on the weight issue.
Martz said recently that Williams was at 240 in early December and that the weight slowed him down too much to line him up as an outside receiver. Williams obviously disagrees with the coaches' assessment and believes he can play at that weight.
"If they do want me back, hopefully, we can come to a fair weight for me to play at," Williams said.
When asked about Williams' suggestion that the Lions relax his weight restriction, Marinelli said: "I just go straight ahead. I know what I want and know how I want these guys to look. I don't loosen up."
In his two seasons with the Lions, the No. 10 pick in the 2005 draft has been a major disappointment. He caught 29 passes for 350 yards and one touchdown as a rookie, but he slipped to eight catches for 99 yards and one touchdown this year.
If the Lions trade him or release him, Williams will have the distinction of scoring just two touchdowns in two years — one in his first NFL game and one in his last.
Executive vice president and chief operating officer Tom Lewand has indicated that the re-signing of Furrey is a priority and he expects to keep Furrey on the roster.
In two previous seasons as a backup receiver in St. Louis (2003-04), Furrey had just 21 receptions for 197 yards without a touchdown. In 2005, he was moved to the defensive backfield and started 11 games at safety for the Rams.
When Mike Martz came to the Lions as their offensive coordinator last February, he recommended Furrey be signed, and the move has paid off handsomely. Furrey finished the season with 98 receptions for 1,086 yards and six touchdowns.
Coach Rod Marinelli obviously backs Lewand's view of getting Furrey signed to a long-term contract.
"I want him here, I've stated that," Marinelli said. "I think he's what we're trying to build here, how he does things, how he practices and everything. He's so valuable, he's a clutch guy. We've just got to have him here ... Let's pay our guy and keep our guy."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The short wait apparently promised by Brett Favre begins.
Favre was scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his chronically nagging left ankle in Green Bay on Monday afternoon. The 37-year-old quarterback will return home to Hattiesburg, Miss., later in the week and doesn't anticipate taking long to decide whether to return for a 17th NFL season or retire.
A choked-up Favre told a national TV audience after the Packers ended the season with a 26-7 win at Chicago on Sunday night that he'll probably have something to announce about his future plans in a couple of weeks. He waited until late April last off-season to commit to the 2006 season.
Many observers took the appearance of a teary-eyed Favre in the interview with NBC to mean that he played his final game.
"If it is my last game, I want to remember it," Favre said. "It's tough; it's tough. I'll miss these guys; I'll miss this game. I just want to let everyone know that."
Most of Favre's teammates, though, were unaware that he broke down during the interview. They refused to speculate about the impending decision.
"If this is the last one, I wish the best for him. But, we pray to God that it's not," said receiver Donald Driver, who hoisted Favre on to his shoulders after head coach Mike McCarthy pulled the quarterback from the game with less than two minutes left.
The offensive linemen urged Favre to pose for a photo with them on the field after the game ended.
"Hopefully, it's not the last time, but if it is, it'll be a nice keepsake," right tackle Mark Tauscher said, who called the guessing game about Favre's intentions "kind of foolish for everybody."
"I said the last two years he was going to retire. So, I'm going to say he'll retire and hope that I'm wrong for the third year in a row," Tauscher added.
McCarthy declined late Sunday night to share any insight he might have regarding Favre's future. McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have told Favre that they would like him back for next season.
"If you talk to some of the players that had the opportunity to walk away from the game on their own, you'd like to walk away with some gas in your tank," McCarthy said. "Like I've told him already, his gas gauge is well over three-quarters (full). He's got a lot left in his tank. That's just where he's at. He's not your normal 37-year-old, that's for sure."
Green Bay, meanwhile, is poised to bring back running back Ahman Green. He said after the game Sunday that his agent has been in discussions with team management about a new contract. Green held up for the entire season after suffering a season-ending ruptured thigh in 2005 and set a franchise record with his sixth 1,000-yard rushing season. Green had signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract last off-season and tops the Packers' short list of potential free agents this off-season.
"I'm looking forward to next season, being in green and gold. That's the only thing that's on my mind," Green said.
The defense put an exclamation point on a four-game recovery to end the season by coming up with a season-high six takeaways, including five interceptions, in the 26-7 win at Chicago on Sunday night.
"I thought they were outstanding, and it was great to see that group really come together down the stretch," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "You could really say the last four to five weeks, we played as good of defense as anybody in the National Football League."
Free safety Nick Collins, who had two picks, and nickel back Patrick Dendy led the pillaging with interception returns for touchdowns at the expense of Bears quarterback Rex Grossman in the first half. The Packers intercepted three Grossman passes and also recovered a bungled snap by Grossman. They picked off replacement Brian Griese twice in the second half.
"It really starts up front. I thought we put good pressure on (the quarterbacks) all day, especially with just the four-man rush, particularly early," McCarthy said. "(Cornerback) Charles Woodson (who had his NFC-leading eighth interception) is as instinctive of a defensive back as I've ever been around. I thought you saw Nick Collins really start to come into his own. He's been making big plays down the stretch."
The four-game winning streak that enabled the Packers to end the season 8-8 was mostly the doing of the defense, which had been a sucker for giving up big play after big play. The unit during the closing stretch allowed only 35 points and three touchdowns and amassed 13 takeaways (10 interceptions).
"It just goes to show we can be the best secondary in the NFL if everybody is on the same page and just go out there and have fun. No team can whip us," Collins said.
"Hey, we would be a team to reckon with in the playoffs right now," Collins said.
The New York Giants gained the final wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs over the Packers on a strength-of-victory tiebreaker.
Green Bay suffered a fall-from-ahead 34-27 loss to New Orleans in Week 2, had a late-game fumble deep in St. Louis territory that cemented a 23-20 win for the Rams in Week 5 and handed a 24-10 win to Buffalo in Week 9 with a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone.
Green Bay's 2007 home schedule will include games against division rivals Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota, predetermined matchups with Philadelphia and Washington of the NFC East and Oakland and San Diego of the AFC West and a contest against NFC South runner-up Carolina.
The road slate includes the three division games, predetermined matchups with Dallas and the New York Giants of the NFC East and Denver and Kansas City of the AFC West and a contest against NFC West runner-up St. Louis.