ST. LOUIS -- The Bears' offense moved the ball as well as it has all year Sunday in St. Louis.
But penalties and turnovers made it more a part of the problem than the solution in a sloppy 42-21 loss to the Rams that was truly a team effort.
Once again the defense couldn't slow down an opponent's running game, even after Rams starter Zac Stacy left with an injury. The Bears' defense allowed a season-worst 258 rushing yards, including 87 by Stacy, 109 by backup Bennie Cunningham and 65 on a fake end-around by Tavon Austin on the Rams' third play from scrimmage.
Special teams contributed to the loss as well.
Devin Hester's apparent 62-yard TD on a fourth-quarter punt return was called back because of a questionable holding call on Craig Steltz. It would have been Hester's 20th career return touchdown, giving him the all-time NFL record.
"Today we lost as a team," coach Marc Trestman said. "We lost in all three phases of football. We didn't play well enough to win."
The whole mess added up to a missed opportunity of monumental proportions, given the heavily favored, NFC North-leading Lions loss at home to the Bucs. The Packers, also at home, tied the cellar-dwelling Vikings. The Bears are Lions remain tied at the top of the NFC North at 6-5, with Detroit holding the tie-breaker by virtue of a series sweep. The Packers are 5-5-1 and the Vikings, who host the Bears on Sunday, are 2-8-1.
Behind another impressive effort by backup quarterback Josh McCown, the offense rolled up 424 total yards, including 344 through the air but committed 6 of the Bears' 10 penalties for 84 yards.
The Bears had less than 60 yards in penalties in each of their first nine games and were never flagged more than six times in a game. But they've been whistled for 23 penalties for 195 yards the past two weeks.
"That's not us," said wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who led all players with 10 receptions and 117 yards, which included a 3-yard TD, his team-best ninth of the season. "Usually we play a pretty clean game. But, just like last week, we shot ourselves in the foot and weren't able to overcome penalties and stupid mistakes."
A promising drive late in the third quarter, with the Bears trailing 27-14, was short-circuited by a pair of pre-snap penalties, the kind the Bears had almost completely avoided the first nine weeks.
A series of bizarre occurrences on the Bears' last scoring drive saw four different players reach the end zone before they scored a TD that counted. That possession was a perfect example of an offense that often moved the ball in large chunks but just as often couldn't get out of its own way.
It started with Hester's apparent record-setting return that was called back.
"When guys fall and trip, sometimes you back off of them," said Steltz, who followed that rule after the Rams player he was blocking went down. "You let them go down and you let them get back up. I didn't know what happened (to the guy). He got up and we kept running.
"When I saw a flag down, I said 'Oh (shoot).' I want to see it (on tape). I don't know what happened."
It didn't matter because McCown quickly moved the Bears into scoring range and threw a 3-yard pass to Martellus Bennett in the end zone. But that was nullified by a holding call on left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
On the very next play McCown dumped off a short pass to Matt Forte, who tumbled into the end zone as officials signaled touchdown. But that was reversed on review. Finally, Michael Bush plowed over from a yard out, bringing the Bears within 27-21 with 7:15 left in the game.
But they never threatened after that.
McCown was excellent again in his third start in place of injured Jay Cutler. He completed 36 of 47 passes for 352 yards with 2 TDs, along with his first interception of the year, but he finished with a 102.4 passer rating for the game and is at 100.8 for the season.
It wasn't enough to overcome the mistakes, though. McCown lost a fumble on a sack that was returned for a TD, giving the Rams their final points. Forte lost a fumble at the Bears' 7-yard line that set up the short TD drive that put the Rams up 14-0 just 2:24 into the game.
And Bush, who had minus-5 yards on 7 carries, was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal from the Rams' 1-yard line midway through the third quarter. A touchdown would have narrowed the Bears' deficit to 24-21.
"You (can't) put yourself in position where you're going backwards instead of forward, especially when you're playing a team like that, and a defense like that," Bushrod said. "We had too many negative plays, too many penalties, starting with myself, and we came up short.
"We could have used some of those plays that we got penalties on."