By Scott Lindholm-

(CBS) The Bears-Packers game had something for everyone going into the game:

1. The return of Aaron Rodgers

2. The continuing saga of Jay Cutler and Josh McCown

3. Two potent offenses facing two suspect defenses

4. Bears weather (quick note–see how well Bears play in “Bears weather“)

5. A playoff spot on the line

It was the Fox Game of the Week, getting the full Joe Buck/Troy Aikman treatment. Immediately prior to the game there was a spirited discussion by the FOX pregame panel as to whether this game would be a “referendum on Jay Cutler,” with only Terry Bradshaw displaying common sense and saying that no decision should be made based on one game.

There were all sorts of interesting plays, such as the bizarre fumble ignored by all 22 players on the field resulting in a Packers TD by Jarrett Boykin. Despite a defense which allowed both Eddie Lacy and James Starks to run at will, the Bears scored enough points to lead 28-27 with a little over six minutes left. Just where the Bears wanted them, right?

There were three huge plays in the last Packers drive:

1. Going for it on 4-and-inches from their own 22 after a very questionable ball placement and getting it.

2. Going for it on 4-and-1 with just under 2 minutes and gaining six yards on a pass to Jordy Nelson.

3. 1:23 left to go, Packers at the 50-yard line and the Bears defense picked a good time in the season to hold. This ended up with the Packers at the Bears 48 with a 4-and-8 with 46 seconds left. This prompted a tweet from the Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh:

We all know what happened next–Rodgers threw the game-winning TD pass to Randall Cobb, who couldn’t be more wide open than he was. “Fourth-and-the-season” indeed. And just to add insult to injury, Jay Cutler threw an interception in the last play of the game. How perfect. How 2013 Bears.

It was an entertaining game, in no way helped by the cheering from my Packer fan daughter whom I love dearly most of the time. In the end, a person in the short list of best player in the NFL led his team to victory and delivered big plays precisely when needed. What does it say about an 8-8 Bears team?

Nothing that hasn’t been pretty obvious for quite some time–a defense eyed with suspicion for the past year or so simply disintegrated, be it through injury like Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Henry Milton or lack of improvement by young players like Shea McClellin and Jonathan Bostic. It was going to happen eventually, and 2013 just happened to be the year when it occurred.

None of this was Jay Cutler’s fault, and he’ll be the soap opera subject of the offseason. I’m amazed a team which set franchise records for points allowed (by a very healthy margin, about a 14% increase over the previous record of 421 points allowed in 1997) and total yards allowed (also by a very healthy margin) will be discussed in terms of what Jay Cutler did or didn’t do. It will be the ultimate whistling past the graveyard as people who dislike Cutler so much would let him walk and take their chances with a journeyman quarterback on his fifth team who will be 35 when the season opens next fall. Quarterbacks can have good seasons at 35 or older–one need look no further than Peyton Manning, but anyone who wants to discuss Josh McCown and Peyton Manning in the same sentence is seriously deluded.

Taking the old Lovie Smith approach, the Bears by quarter were:

Quarter 1–3-1 and looking very good offensively even if the defense made folks a little nervous

Quarter 2–2-2, noted by the loss of Cutler in the Washington game and the rise of Josh McCown in the Packer game

Quarter 3–1-3, as the defense began to fall apart

Quarter 4–2-2, with the Bears totally disintegrating in a game with big implications against the Eagles and unable to get the job done against the Packers

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the cap space the Bears have available for 2014 and it’s enough to do everything they need–re-sign Cutler if they (correctly) want, retain key free agents like Charles Tillman, Jeremiah Ratliff, Matt Slauson and others if they wish and make some key defensive free agent signings. The Bears defense doesn’t have to be the best in the NFL, merely average, or good enough to allow a team that scores 28 points a game to win their share of games.

I don’t believe anyone’s expectations were high at the beginning of this season. I’ll go so far as to state I was hard-pressed to see them being much better than 8-8 because I couldn’t conceive the offense would be as productive as it was and had concerns with the defense. Going forward, the Bears are in very good shape offensively–a healthy Jay Cutler has all the rushing and receiving tools he needs and an offensive line to give him protection like he’s never seen in Chicago. With a productive draft and two or three key defensive free agents, it’s conceivable the Bears could be right at the top of the heap next year. Will it happen–who knows, we’re 9 months away from the kickoff of 2014, but in today’s NFL anything is possible.

But in the end the season came down to:

1. Cutler’s injury against Washington

2. Shea McClellin knocking Aaron Rodgers out and changing the Packers from the class of the NFC North

3. A field goal attempt on 2nd down against Minnesota

4. Whatever happened in Philadelphia

5. And ultimately, two huge defensive lapses (the fumble and the Cobb TD) in the game that decided everything

This close, and they couldn’t do it–that will indeed be the epitaph for the 2013 Bears. But it doesn’t have to be their fate going forward.

Scott Lindholm is a columnist for and and frequent contributor to The Boers and Bernstein Show. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

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