Fumble return was where season really ended

The football wasn’t dead.

It skipped and spun on Soldier Field’s beaten grass like a live fish pulled from icy Lake Michigan.

Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin jabbed at it, before finally successfully scooping it on his second try and jogging in solitude 15 yards into the end zone.

Sure, the fumble return for touchdown gave the visiting Packers only a 10-7 lead with Sunday’s NFC North showdown not even half over.

No matter, the Bears’ season was as good as dead.

And then it was, officially, as the Packers pulled out a 33-28 win thanks to Aaron Rodgers’ 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on fourth-and-8 with 38 seconds left.

It might have been Rodgers’ second best play of the day. His best came thanks not to his lethal right arm or legs, but his voice. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers hit Rodgers’ arm as the Packers quarterback was about to unleash a throw on a first-and-10 play from the Bears 17. The ball squirted forward several yards.

It looked like an incompletion.

As players on both sides stood idly — and the game clock stopped — Rodgers barked at Boykins to pick up the ball and run. Boykin had been running his route, but then he too had stopped chasing the ball. After Boykins secured it, Rodgers pointed to the end zone. Not that Boykins didn’t know its location.

Boykins’ shocking TD came with 3:28 left before halftime, erasing the Packers’ 7-3 deficit.

“We all thought it was a dead ball,” Bears linebacker James Anderson said. “That’s was why everyone kind of stopped. It was a big play. We need to make sure that we hear the whistle.”

Because the play resulted in a touchdown, it was automatically reviewed.

The play stood. The Bears stood stunned.

“Basically, it’s my call as far as the pass/fumble component of it,” referee Clete Blakeman said. “I threw the beanbag. I ruled a fumble. From the officiating side of things, we were still playing it as a live ball. Even though some of the players kind of didn’t react the same way, it’s still a live ball rolling around. Ultimately, Green Bay picks it up, and they can advance it.”

And so the Packers advance — to the playoffs — while the Bears do not.

“It’s a tough one,” defensive lineman Corey Wootton said. “Normally we get on the ball like that. We didn’t. Good play by them getting on it and scoring. It’s something we got to get on. We practice that all the time.”

Play to the whistle. It’s taught in youth football and at every level after that. Lovie Smith preached it. For some reason, in a make-or-break game, the Bears inexcusably quit on a play that proved pivotal.

“We were in man, and I was in coverage and I didn’t see if the ball got tipped, or (something else),” cornerback Zack Bowman said. “I didn’t even see what happened, I just saw the ball on the ground. By the time I turned around, the guy went over and picked the ball up and ran it in for a touchdown. It’s kind of crazy.”

It seemed fitting, crazily. In a season that saw them gashed game after game by running backs, from Pro Bowlers to backups, the Bears allowed a wide receiver to pick up a ball and run free, all the way to the end zone. Two other wide receivers had actual rushing TDs against the Bears this season.

“We didn’t hear a whistle,” Wootton said. “We should have gotten on it. We didn’t. But we can’t sit here harping on one play because, ultimately, it came down to another play: fourth-and-8, and we didn’t get it done.”

Not even the cerebral, bespectacled Marc Trestman could explain it.

“Twenty-two players basically stopped,” the Bears head coach said. “(No.) 11 (Boykin) probably got the word from the sideline to pick the ball up, because it was over on their side. Both teams stopped. It’s an unusual situation.”

A bad thing happened to a bad defense. That’s how it goes, usually.

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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, above left, signals touchdown after wide receiver Jarrett Boykin picked up Rodgers’ fumble and ran into the end zone with 3:28 left in the first half Sunday at Soldier Field. Boykin, above right, stands in the end zone, probably wondering why nobody on the Bears’ defense gave chase. Associated Press
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