Penalties prove costly in Bears' wild-card loss to Saints
What if Javon Wims doesn't drop that easy touchdown pass? What if Cole Kmet just walks back to the huddle? What if Anthony Miller keeps his cool? What if Eddie Jackson doesn't leap offsides on fourth-and-3?
If any or all of those things didn't occur, would the Bears have shocked us all and defeated the New Orleans Saints in a wild-card playoff game Sunday?
It's certainly possible.
But that's not what happened. Instead, we saw one sad display of football.
And when it was over, New Orleans was moving on to face Tampa Bay in the wild-card round after beating the Bears 21-9.
"Can't shoot ourselves in the foot (like that)," said safety Tashaun Gipson. "We did uncharacteristic things and it wound up getting to us. ... This is the worst feeling that you could possibly have when you felt like you could have won this game. It's a sad day, man."
Really, though, the mistakes weren't all that uncharacteristic for this wildly inconsistent 8-9 squad. Sure, the costly penalties abated for a few games. But they came back in spades at the worst possible time.
"Today wasn't good enough," said coach Matt Nagy. "We have to be better in a lot of different areas and that's my job is to make sure that happens."
He's got that right.
The Bears must be better at running the ball (19 carries for 48 yards), passing it (Mitch Trubisky had 108 yards before the final drive), on third downs (1-for-10) and at not committing penalties (9 for 50 yards).
Things started going wrong on Wims' through-the-breadbasket drop after a perfectly executed trick play left him wide open in the end zone. Catch it and it's 7-7.
But the ball hit the turf, and the Bears wound up turning the ball over on downs after Trubisky ran 2 yards on fourth-and-4.
So was it just one play? Not really. You can't say that in a playoff game where every blown opportunity can be the difference between winning and losing.
"I'd be sitting here lying to you if I told you that didn't hurt. That hurt," Nagy said. "That's been sitting in the playbook now for weeks. We've been practicing that, we had it (and) we've been waiting for the right time. ...
"Against a team like this, when there's an opportunity to be made, you have to make that play. And Javon knows that."
The Bears' defense -- while missing quite a few tackles -- nonetheless did a solid job of keeping Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara in check most of the day.
But you just can't make mental mistakes in the postseason, and three of them essentially derailed any chance of an upset.
The first came when Kmet was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct after catching a 1-yard pass in the red zone. Now, yes, it was a very questionable call -- one that turned third-and-6 from the 10 into third-and-20 from the 24.
But if Kmet doesn't say a word to Malcolm Jenkins and just puts the ball down instead of tossing it toward him, there's no penalty. Cairo Santos ended up kicking a field goal to cut New Orleans' lead to 7-3 with 8:06 remaining in the first half.
"Cole and our coaches said he was throwing the ball to the ref," Nagy said. (The refs) told me he was throwing the ball to the player, like he was taunting. ... That was a big play in the game. When Cole says he was throwing the ball to the ref, until I see it I've got to believe what he's saying."
Still very much alive coming out of halftime, the Bears lost Miller when he was ejected for smacking Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Incredibly, that's exactly who Wims pummeled in Week 8, which led to an ejection and a suspension.
"We spent time literally showing and explaining (that) player's actions in games. And teaching it," said Nagy, whose team was already without the injured Darnell Mooney. "That's taking 10 or 15 minutes out of your day, which is precious. ... It's something where our guys, we've all got to understand we've got to be stronger and we can't have that happen."
New Orleans then put together a solid drive that should have ended with a field goal. But Jackson jumped offsides on fourth-and-3, giving the Saints a first down. Two plays later, Latavius Murray caught a 6-yard TD pass to make it 14-3 with 4:08 remaining in the third quarter.
New Orleans put the game away on Kamara's 3-yard run midway through the fourth.
So that's it. Another season is over and now the Bears must start searching for answers to see if they can ever become an elite team like the Saints, Packers and Chiefs.
"Making the playoffs is great, but what we did today has to be a lot better," Nagy said. "For us to ... be the team that we need to be, that's something we'll do ... is make sure wherever there's a weakness we make it a strength. That's gonna take everybody."