The NFC North championship seemed to be waiting for the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.
One play away. Fourth-and-8. Final minute.
Cornerback Tim Jennings felt his excitement rising, a 28-27 Bears lead over the Packers about to become a playoff-clinching final score.
On the previous snap, Jennings had broken up Aaron Rodgers' pass to Jordy Nelson.
The Bears defense, on a pressure-packed stage, was standing strong enough, ready to secure the division title.
Finally, they had the Packers down to their last breath, down to their final play, at the Bears' 48.
"There was so much going through my head right then," Jennings said. "We were right there."
So how was it that Jennings and his teammates were standing in a stunned locker room less than 25 minutes later describing their heartbreak, lamenting a painful 33-28 loss and feeling totally jarred by a breakdown on the season's most critical play.
That one play, fourth-and-8 from the 48? Unsuccessful blitz. Blown coverage.
Touchdown pass, Rodgers to Randall Cobb with 38 seconds left.
"You go from being absolutely ecstatic," rookie cornerback Isaiah Frey said, "to the lowest point of sadness you can get. It sucks."
Added Jennings: "Most definitely, this one's going to sting for a while. This was win or go home, man."
Rather than afford Rodgers time to make a play, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker dialed up a blitz with Frey plus linebackers Lance Briggs and James Anderson.
Frey didn't get the jump he wanted, caught in traffic at the line. Briggs and Anderson failed to get through too.
And Packers fullback John Kuhn darted left just in time to upend Julius Peppers coming hot off the edge at Rodgers.
The Packers quarterback alertly looped past Peppers, scrambling left. The Bears had hoped their pressure would force Rodgers to get rid of the ball quickly.
But there also was an expectation the secondary would do its part in preventing the big play.
Instead, safety Chris Conte got caught in no man's land underneath and Cobb suddenly was behind the entire defense, running free, destroying the Bears' season.
"We just lost coverage," Bears coach Marc Trestman said, "with our eyes in the backfield."
Rodgers' pass felt as if it hung in the air forever, each Bear defender feeling the shot to the gut as it sailed uncontested.
"I saw Aaron launch back and throw," Frey said. "I looked. It was like, 'Man. He's wide open.'"
Added Zack Bowman: "That's what happens when you have miscommunications on the back end."
That was the final scoring play of a wild afternoon that also included Jarrett Boykin's bizarre fumble recovery touchdown late in the first half. That came after Peppers hit Rodgers from behind.
Initially, it appeared Rodgers had thrown the ball. But no whistles blew. And after Anderson didn't scoop the ball on a hop, it sat for two seconds at the 15 with no whistle and no Bears going after it.
Boykin grabbed it 8 yards in front of where Peppers hit Rodgers and jogged to the end zone.
"I don't know what everyone else saw," Anderson said. "But you did see an arm coming forward and you assumed dead ball."
The Bears rallied after that. Matt Forte's 157 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns were a big reason why. Brandon Marshall's diving 5-yard touchdown catch on the opening play of the fourth quarter provided a 28-20 lead. And quarterback Jay Cutler (15-for-24, 226 yards, two TDs, one interception) was solid overall after a trio of early three-and-outs.
But Rodgers, playing for the first time since fracturing his collarbone 55 days earlier, delivered the ultimate magic trick on the clutch touchdown to Cobb, the Packers' third fourth-down conversion on a 15-play, 87-yard, NFC North-clinching drive.
"Two guys making a great, great play," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, "that will be running on the highlight reel for the rest of my time on this earth."
It also will be running through the Bears' nightmares — the final play they were hoping to make that instead left them out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
"Two weeks ago, we sat in position to make something happen," defensive end Corey Wootton said. "We could have beat Philly and we got our butts whooped. Ultimately, it came down to this game. And we had this game in our hands."
Added Jennings: "We don't have tomorrow anymore."
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