Bears miss chance at progress in loss to Lions as most reliable players falter late

The most crushing part is that the game fell apart in the hands of some of the Bears’ most reliable players: quarterback Justin Fields, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and kicker Cairo Santos.

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A photo of Bears quarterback Justin Fields walking off the field after a play.

Justin Fields had 147 yards rushing and a 99.4 passer rating, but threw a brutal pick-six in the fourth quarter.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The emphasis throughout this season is on the Bears’ dream of developing into a contender. That outweighs everything else.

By that measure, they missed a chance to move forward Sunday.

Don’t brush off their 31-30 loss to the Lions as inconsequential or make it a positive because of how it might help them in the draft. Losing at home to a fellow rebuilder is indefensible, especially when the Bears were leading 24-10 and had the ball to begin the fourth quarter. Closing that out would have been meaningful beyond Sunday.

‘‘It plays a big factor in the big picture,’’ tight end Cole Kmet said. ‘‘You understand where this is going here, obviously, but you want to build a big-picture thing? You’ve gotta win some games.

‘‘You have to get that feeling and understand how to do it. When we’re able to break through this thing and figure it out and be able to execute late in the game, it’s going to be really good for us going forward.’’

The most crushing part is that the game fell apart in the hands of some of the Bears’ most reliable players: quarterback Justin Fields, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and kicker Cairo Santos.

The Bears know they’re going to take losses, but they shouldn’t be because of those guys.

Fields made only one mistake, but it torpedoed the game.

On his pick-six early in the fourth quarter, he made a brutally bad decision under pressure to loft a pass to Kmet and, without solid footing, sailed it well over his head to cornerback Jeff Okudah for an easy interception return that tied the score at 24.

That’s undoubtedly the lasting image from this defeat, but it’s probably not as alarming as it felt in real time. That’s basically a rookie mistake by a quarterback making his 20th career start. That error can be corrected.

‘‘Just a dumb play,’’ Fields acknowledged, saying he wished he had thrown the ball into the ground. ‘‘I can assure you that will never happen again for the rest of my career.’’

If Fields couldn’t read coverages or grasp the playbook — the deficiencies that sunk Mitch Trubisky — that would be trouble. One disastrous decision, as ugly as it was, isn’t a terrifying omen.

By the way, he erased it as only he can — with a 67-yard touchdown run three plays later. We can call it even.

That run should have guaranteed the Bears overtime at worst, but Santos missed the extra point. Lining up on the right hashmark, he sent the ball on a wild, wobbly hook to the left to leave the Bears leading 30-24.

‘‘It’s easy to just count one point, but there’s so many things that happened,’’ Santos said. ‘‘We all have opportunities to make plays and help the team win. We can’t point fingers about why we didn’t come out with 31 points at the end.’’

There’s nothing scarier for this defense than clinging to a six-point lead.

Actually, there is: Seeing a diminished version of Johnson.

There is precious little upon which the Bears’ defense can depend, and Johnson has been an absolute pillar. But he clearly wasn’t right after straining an oblique muscle in practice. He took himself out of the game for part of the second quarter, which is unusual for someone who rarely misses a snap.

On the Lions’ game-winning drive, Johnson lagged behind receiver Kalif Raymond on a 20-yard completion and fell a couple of steps behind Tom Kennedy as he got free for a 44-yarder.

It’s unclear how much the injury affected Johnson because he declined to speak with reporters.

The Bears have dropped six of their last seven games, a fact that is easy to forget because Fields has been flourishing. But they can’t go all season claiming moral victories. Part of their process must include actual wins, and they especially need to show they’re capable of that against teams on their level.

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