By Adam Hoge-
SOLDIER FIELD (CBS) — Fourth-and-8. 46 seconds left. Aaron Rodgers against the worst Bears defense in recent memory — maybe ever.
In sports, stories don’t always end like they are supposed to, but Sunday evening at Soldier Field, the stories for both the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers ended exactly how they should have.
For the Packers, Rodgers led his team into the playoffs by making a play he’s known for — escaping pressure, moving to his left and finding the open guy. With Rodgers, there’s usually at least one receiver open, and this time it was Randall Cobb — just activated from injured reserved Saturday — who caught the game-winning 48-yard touchdown pass.
Rodgers to Cobb — the two players the Packers have been missing — giving Green Bay the NFC North, just like it was supposed to be when the season began.
For the Bears, there couldn’t have been a more fitting ending to the season than the fastest player on the opposing team running free down the middle of the field on the game’s climactic play. A stop on 4th-and-8 meant an NFC North championship. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker knew it and rolled the dice with an all-out blitz. The aging, fading Julius Peppers almost got there, but was clipped just enough by Packers fullback John Kuhn. Meanwhile, someone — most likely safety Chris Conte — missed an assignment in the secondary, leaving Cobb wide open for the final blow.
2013 in a nutshell.
The confusion on the fateful 4th down play carried over into the locker room after the game.
“It’s man coverage,” Bears head coach Trestman said, calling it a “zero blitz”.
“It wasn’t man-to-man,” cornerback Tim Jennings said. “It was one of those check zone, fire zones. I think we blitzed everybody.”
Well, that pretty much explains it. The replay shows Conte playing zone, letting Cobb go behind him. Bowman was running with the outside receiver and appears to realize that Conte wasn’t going to stay on Cobb, but by then it was too late. Cobb, realizing he was going to be wide open, actually put his hand in the air about eight yards down field before he even passed Conte.
“That’s us as a secondary. I’m not going throw nobody under the bus,” Bowman said.
It would have been nice to hear Conte’s explanation, but he got dressed and left the locker room quickly, declining comment.
It also would have been nice to hear from the guy who calls out the plays on defense, linebacker Lance Briggs, who refused to talk to the media for the second straight game. In fact, he declined to speak to reporters at Halas Hall all week. By not commenting, Bears fans can only wonder why Briggs is seen on a replay with his hands on his hips merely watching Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin stroll into the end zone after picking up a first-half fumble that had been sitting on the ground for five seconds.
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While Cobb’s game-winning touchdown catch was symbolic of the 2013 season for the Bears’ defense, the Boykin fumble recovery was odd, but not surprising. Peppers knocked the ball out from behind right as Rodgers reached back to throw. Because the ball went forward, every player on the field thought it was a pass, but that’s not an excuse. The Bears’ coaching staff drills its players to pick up every loose ball and play through every whistle.
“We talk about it all the time,” Trestman said. “There’s never been a time the whole year where I’ve blown the whistle in practice and the ball is on the ground that we didn’t pick it up and scoop and score with it.”
Indeed, any fan that has ever been to a training camp practice in Bourbonnais knows that defensive players constantly pick up every loose ball and run with them. But in the most important game of the season, not a single Bears player opted to pick up the ball and run for what probably would have been a touchdown. Instead, the Packers did. What could have been 14-3 lead for the Bears instead was a 10-7 lead for the Packers.
“For me to try to explain why that happened, I really can’t this time because we never allow the ball to sit on the ground like that at any time in practice,” Trestman said.
Linebacker James Anderson, who let the ball sit on the ground after it bounced and hit him in the hands, said he thought he heard a whistle, but none was actually blown.
“I don’t know what everyone else saw, but you did see an arm coming forward and you assumed dead ball,” Anderson said. “But you have to play to the whistle.”
Playing to the whistle — yet another fundamental football rule that cost the Bears’ defense this season.
But with this unit, nothing was really surprising in 2013. The Bears’ defense finished the season allowing a total of 6,497 yards from scrimmage, 521 more than any other season in franchise history. That margin is the equivalent of one extra awful defensive game, but no, the Bears did not play 17 games this season, they played 16 — just like the other 26 worst defensive seasons in franchise history that weren’t nearly as bad.
Thus, a remarkable offensive turnaround that saw the Bears go from 28th in total offense to 8th was wasted.
And that left the Bears in a familiar place in the NFC North: behind the Packers.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.