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The last four weeks of the Bears' season have been like the four stages following a death. There was denial that the crushing Monday-night loss to the Minnesota Vikings meant anything drastic, anger over the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime, resignation with the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and finally, last Sunday, acceptance after the loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Bears truly are as bad as they have seemed, and it is not solely Mike Ditka's fault, or Jim Harbaugh's, or Mike McCaskey's, or the fault of that grimmest of sports reapers, old man age, but all of the above. Suddenly, everything is clear; there are no delusions. This hardly offers anything resembling peace of mind, but it does make a fan seem somehow settled.

The first half of the Tampa Bay game was the nadir, the worst 30 minutes of Chicago football since the Abe Gibron era. If there was ever a game intended to produce resignation in a partisan fan, that was it. Yet last Sunday's loss to the Green Bay Packers was, if anything, ever more convincing. It reminded a Chicago fan of the mid-70s Cubs and the way Jack Brickhouse would moan, "Oh brother, this is a snake-bitten Cub ball team." This was a snakebitten football team; the Bears couldn't buy a break, all their weaknesses manifested themselves one by one, and when they were finally handed an opportunity they handed it right back again. What does one do after one has been bitten by a rattler and no help is forthcoming?. One expires, slowly but surely.

After the Bears' second-half rally against Tampa Bay, which fell short by a missed field goal, they opened with the ball and facing into the wind against the Packers, and they marched to a field goal. Brad Muster, the missing man in the Bears' offense throughout their skid, caught a crucial pass, and Kevin Butler, who had missed that last-second field goal in Tampa, drilled one squarely through the uprights into a brisk and swirling breeze to give the Bears the lead.

That's it for the highlights, as they say on the Sunday-night sports roundups.

The Packers marched right back down the field in the opposite direction, with what has become disturbing ease to anyone who remembers the Bears defense of the 80s--or of any era. Really, even when the Bears were awful, during the 70s, they had a better defense than they have now. The reasons for their decline are many, but foremost among them is the aging of mainstays Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, and, of course, Mike Singletary. It pains a Bears fan to point this out, but Singletary is washed up. In recent weeks he repeatedly has shown up standing near a tackle, a few moments shy of being in on the play. After a groin injury slowed him for much of the late 80s, he rebounded in 1990 by slimming down and improving his anticipation. Yet this season even that great anticipation has betrayed him, as he has run himself out of plays while opponents cut back against the grain.

Against the Buccaneers he filled a gap in the line the way he used to, the way he once did in a 1985 playoff game at Soldier Field when he and Eric Dickerson were the best at their positions in the National Football League and he met Dickerson head-on at the line of scrimmage on a critical fourth down and stood him up. He met the Bucs' Reggie Cobb at the line of scrimmage, and Cobb lowered Singletary to his knees with a punishing hit and then bulled his way to a critical first down. During the Packers' first drive the Bears defense caught up with an end run, and here came Singletary to join in. But he bounced off the pile and fell out of bounds, while the ball carrier was driven out of bounds standing up.

Just because death is accepted doesn't make it any less painful from moment to moment.

McMichael and Dent have both had their moments--along with William Perry--but have suffered from an inability to put those moments together. On a Green Bay third and five, deep in Bears territory, McMichael played off two blocks and sent quarterback Brett Favre sprawling to the ground with a single forearm. Green Bay, however, kicked the field goal to tie the score.

The Pack--like most teams playing against the Bears this season--expected them to run and dared them to throw deep. The Packers brought a safety up as almost a fifth linebacker (they play a 3-4 defense, with three down linemen and four linebackers). The Bears played right into their hands on the following possession. They ran on first down and got nothing. Harbaugh misfired on a second-down pass. They ran on third down--no surprise to anyone who has seen the Bears this season, or at any time during the Ditka era--and failed to earn the first down. As both teams had already completed long drives for field goals, the first quarter was winding down; but the Packers called a time-out to stop the clock and got the ball back at midfield with about 100 seconds left of the wind at their backs.

They didn't need but eight seconds or nine. Favre hit Sterling Sharpe on the post pattern following a beautiful play-action fake--Favre had the ball curled up behind his back as he mimicked the handoff--and it was good for a touchdown.

For most of the rest of the game the Packers' offense did not bully the Bears' defense, and there were no big plays, aside from a couple of turnovers we'll get to soon enough. Yet the Packers moved the ball well enough to get it to midfield with each possession, and they bled the clock white. They kept pinning the Bears down deep in their own territory. The one chance for a break came in the second quarter, when Green Bay punter Bryan Wagner dropped a snap. Alonzo Spellman came sprinting up the middle but for some reason pulled up instead of extending himself, and Wagner got the punt off.

Late in the half the Bears finally appeared ready to stymie the Packers' offense. They had the Pack pinned down in their own territory, and the Bears called a time-out in order to have an opportunity to do something once they got the ball back. Yet on a third-down blitz Favre hit tight end Jackie Harris in the flat, and when the one man guarding him, Shaun Gayle, fell down, Harris went all the way to midfield.

Snake-bitten.

In the third quarter Chris Gardocki punted the ball to the Green-Bay five-yard line, where Maurice Douglass was just waiting for it to bounce into his arms. But in falling on the ball Douglass allowed his foot to slip onto the goal line, making the play a touchback and giving the Packers the ball out on the 20.

The Bears again threatened to stop the Pack three and out, but on third and long--this time with the Bears not blitzing--Favre hit Harvey Sydney circling out of the backfield, and he bounced off two Bears to get the first down.

There was nothing complex about the Green Bay game plan. They threw short to several receivers, they kept the Chicago pass rush guessing with the occasional draw play, and when they ran a straight-up running play they ran it straight. They rarely called misdirections or pulled their guards or tackles; they just drove off the line with simple slant blocking and, man for man, held the Bears at bay.

Rookie Edgar Bennett was in the process of drilling the Bears defense for 100 yards, but late in the third quarter he finally made a rookie mistake and allowed Dent to poke the ball loose from behind. Gayle fell on it at midfield, and the Bears had a chance to tie with a touchdown.

Yet on first down Harbaugh forced a pass to Neal Anderson, who couldn't catch it, and on second down he threw deep to Tom Waddle in double coverage and Chuck Cecil picked it off.

Under siege last week, Ditka talked himself into believing he was the greatest motivational coach that football had ever seen. Yet the proof of how hollow his words were has been the way the Bears have folded up this year following any turnover. The Packers promptly drove downfield. The Bears had a chance to force a field goal and keep themselves in the game, but on third down--with McMichael and Trace Armstrong in hot pursuit--Favre dumped the ball to Sydney for another crushing first down, this one at the Chicago one-yard line. A scrambling Favre scored two plays later.

That was it for Harbaugh, and it might be it for him this season. Peter Tom Willis came on to cheers--that is, among the few fans left in the stands--and he moved the ball downfield three times, although he got nothing for his efforts. The first time, Keith Van Horne committed a holding penalty on a third-down-and-long-yardage completion. So Ditka sent in Stan Thomas to replace him and Willis completed an even longer pass for a first down and, a few plays later, a fluky tipped pass for an apparent touchdown to Wendell Davis. But Thomas was caught holding on that play and, with the touchdown called back, the drive fizzled.

Ditka has caught the brunt of the criticism, and deservedly so, but at some point last week--after he got into a postgame profanity-filled and televised shouting match with a Chicago fan following the loss in Tampa Bay--his troubles apparently ceased to interest fans of the Bears. He wasn't offering any lessons on how to behave under pressure; he was simply a blustery bully no longer capable of bullying any but the weak. He didn't inspire mercy--no, no one brought anything on Ditka but was simply a sort of pathetic character too long in the spotlight, the coach of a dying football team. Sunday's game against the Packers looked, in short, like the case of a well-coached team--secure in its game plan and confident in its personnel, using its time-outs not merely wisely but strategically--beating a poorly coached team, prone to stupid penalties, self-doubts, and vindictive lineup changes.

Is there life after death? In sports, of course. No Chicago fan needs to be told about next year. Yet reincarnation can be a slow and painful process, as anyone who remembers the 22 years between the Bears' most recent titles or any fan of the Cubs or White Sox can explain.

During the last five weeks expect the lights to dim, soften, and, then grow suddenly brighter. But don't expect Ditka to go quietly into that dark night, even though we all wish that he would.

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