MINNEAPOLIS — Blank stares. Hard swallows. Heads shaking, bobblehead style, side to side in utter disbelief.
Misery engulfed the visiting locker room Sunday at the Metrodome.
After a long and emotionally draining game that required overtime to settle, the Bears had come face to face with the kind of loss that may very well torpedo their voyage toward the playoffs, a setback that threatens to replace their resolve with despondency in the season's final month.
Vikings 23, Bears 20.
Where opportunity had been, now there was an agitating list of questions ushering the Bears toward a Sunday night that would be sleepless or filled with nightmares.
How had things gone so haywire?
How did the Bears take what seemed to be a breezy win against an inferior opponent and fumble it away late as if it were a largemouth bass coated in Crisco?
How did the Bears wind up losing after receiver Alshon Jeffery caught 12 balls for a team-record 249 yards with two touchdowns?
How did they squander a double-digit fourth-quarter lead?
How did they surrender a 79-yard game-tying field goal drive in the final two minutes of regulation against the backup quarterback of a 2-8-1 team?
Maybe most importantly of all, how in the world does a team recover from a collapse like this one, not allowing the questions and the disappointment to eat away at their unity?
"I'll talk to them about it (Monday)," coach Marc Trestman promised. "Because it doesn't (end our season)."
Technically true. But a difficult regrouping effort awaits.
"We've all had tough times," safety Craig Steltz said. "We have to keep fighting."
So where did it all slip away Sunday?
Vikings kicker Blair Walsh ended things with a 34-yard field goal with 1:43 left in overtime. But he had that opportunity only after Robbie Gould missed a 47-yarder a series earlier for the Bears.
And Gould had that kick only because Trestman called on his field goal unit on second-and-7 from the Vikings' 29.
On the previous five plays, Matt Forte had carried the Bears 24 yards. Convincing runs of 7 yards, then 4, 9, 1 and 3. Yet suddenly, the usually fearless Trestman felt a surge of anxiety.
His explanation for kicking on second down: "We were definitely in range. And I didn't want to, at that point in time, risk a possible penalty that would set us back. … Or a fumble. Or something unique."
So there's that, a freeze-up in a big moment. And Trestman is correct that Gould's uncharacteristic miss wasn't the sole reason his team lost.
Predictably, the Bears' feeble run defense was again trampled, with Adrian Peterson delivering 211 of the Vikings' 246 rushing yards.
And yet, even with all of Peterson's productivity, the defense still had a chance to finish off the win with the Vikings down three and facing fourth-and-11 from their own 9 with 1:55 left.
One stop and the Bears leave the Metrodome for the final time in good spirits. Instead, Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel — playing because Christian Ponder left the game at halftime with a concussion — drilled a 20-yard completion over the middle to Jerome Simpson.
"I mean, I was there," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "He made a good throw low and away. (Simpson) made a play and I didn't. I've got to figure out a way to get there a step sooner."
That missed opportunity will certainly disturb the Bears as they use film study to deliver an autopsy report on Sunday's loss. And that fourth-down hiccup was followed by more Cassel magic — another dart to Simpson for 24 yards; an out route to tight end John Carlson for 17 yards; a timely 21-yarder to a sliding Jarius Wright along the right sideline.
Walsh's 30-yard field goal with 20 seconds left tied the game.
Cassel threw for 243 yards after halftime, including a 7-yard fourth-quarter TD pass to Greg Jennings.
With tiebreakers mixed in, the 6-6 Bears essentially fell two games behind the NFC North-leading Lions (7-5) with four games left.
So much of Sunday's final result hurt.
"Disappointed, obviously," quarterback Josh McCown said. "Very disappointed."
So little made sense.
"Too many highs and lows, man," Jermon Bushrod said. "We had our opportunities. But we put ourselves in a few bad positions. And we came up short, man. It sucks. We work too hard for this."
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