DETROIT — The Bears' season met a sudden, stunning death when Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal sailed over the upright in the Vikings' victory over the Packers.
But really, the Bears' season had been dying one incompletion at a time.
One stuff at a time.
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- Week 17 photos: Bears 26, Lions 24
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One sack at a time.
One false start at a time.
In retrospect, it was a slow, grueling death, brought on by an offense that never could take a good breath.
It all became so clear early Sunday evening when the lights were dimmed at Ford Field and the only sounds were from the cleanup crews picking up empty beverage containers and rolling garbage cans through the concourses.
Even if the Bears had sneaked into the playoffs, where were they going?
Their kind of offense worked well enough against the Lions and Cardinals of the world. But if the Bears were going to move forward, the offense would have been charged with keeping pace with Colin Kaepernick. It could have been asked to outscore Aaron Rodgers, outduel Matt Ryan and outclass Peyton Manning.
And this offense didn't have an Adrian Peterson who could cover up all the flaws like a heavy-duty concealer.
In the opinion of Fox pregame studio host Terry Bradshaw, the Bears would have been the worst team in the playoffs. Why? "They're all about defense and have a quarterback in Jay Cutler who I don't think even likes himself," Bradshaw said Sunday.
Cutler wasn't the problem Sunday.
He avoided pressure pretty well and didn't throw any interceptions. He had an excellent 19-yard run for a first down on third-and-3 at a critical point in the fourth quarter. He had a few potential touchdown passes dropped.
That's a good day for a Bears quarterback.
But the 26 points the Bears scored were very deceiving and not indicative at all of what the 2012 Bears were offensively.
The Bears converted only 4 of 15 third-down opportunities Sunday. Over their last three games, they converted 19 percent of third downs. The league average going into Week 17 was 38 percent.
And even when they were in position to score touchdowns, they usually could not. They had the ball inside the Lions 25 seven times and scored only one touchdown on those drives.
Even the Bears' most valuable offensive player, Brandon Marshall, did a slow fade late in the year. Marshall's normally reliable hands weren't so sure Sunday.
He had only 42 receiving yards and failed to go over 70 in any of his last three games. "Brandon, he's a little banged up," Cutler said. "It's been a long season for him, lot of catches, lot of opportunities."
Speaking of opportunities, the Bears defense remained the ultimate provider until the bitter end.
If it weren't for short fields, the offense might have thought the end zone was a made-up place, like Shangri-La.
Five of the Bears' six scoring drives went no more than four plays, and four went no more than 9 yards.
On those drives, the offense was the beneficiary of a Tim Jennings interception and three fumble recoveries — Joe Anderson and Eric Weems took the ball away from Joique Bell on a kickoff return, Israel Idonije stripped Matthew Stafford and Julius Peppers recovered, and Major Wright pounced on a bad exchange between Stafford and Mikel Leshoure.
The Bears scored 16 points off takeaways.
"It's disappointing," Cutler said. "I know it's frustrating for the defense to set us up like that and not being able to convert touchdowns."
Before he knew of the outcome of the Vikings-Packers game, Matt Forte talked in hopeful terms about the offense. He said he thought it could still improve, still be something it had failed to be through 16 games, 113 days and 999 snaps.
Their faith was more admirable than their execution.
Really, the way the Bears ended the game could have given fodder to all those scouring the tape of the game for a crumb of optimism. Two of their last three drives were, well, effective.
By Bears offensive standards, that is.
They moved 59 yards on 11 plays on their first fourth-quarter possession and got to the Lions 2 before settling for a 20-yard field goal. It was easily the team's best sustained scoring drive of the day.
And after the Lions got within two, the Bears took over with 3:40 remaining. In what was a victory worth toasting, the Bears got through those remaining minutes without having to punt.
"We're not where we need to be right now, but we'll continue to fight and get better each week," wide receiver Earl Bennett said afterward.
That sounded so much better in September than it did in December.