Bears tackling daunting history in 2020 finale

They can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over the Packers on Sunday, but sneaking into the playoffs isn’t their thing — the Bears haven’t clinched a playoff spot in Week 17 since 1994.

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Packers receiver Randall Cobb (18, in this file photo) has burned the Bears many times in his career, but never more painfully than his 48-yard touchdown reception with 38 seconds left to give the Packers a 33-28 victory in the 2013 season finale at Soldier Field that gave the Packers the NFC North title and cost the Bears a playoff berth.

David Banks/AP Photos

Bears safeties coach Sean Desai habitually and repeatedly implores his players to go after every loose ball in practice. It’s a common tack for any defensive coach to instill a takeaway mentality. But Desai is a particular stickler — he still bears the scar from a hard lesson he learned as a first-year NFL quality-control coach with the Bears in 2013.

With the NFC North title and a playoff berth on the line in the final game of the regular season, the Bears suffered a heartbreaking 33-28 loss to the Packers when Aaron Rodgers took advantage of a miscommunication between Bears safety Chris Conte and cornerback Zack Bowman to throw a 48-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Randall Cobb on fourth-and-eight with 38 seconds left.

As disastrous as that development was, the play that really beat the Bears was an almost inexplicable mental lapse by the defense in the second quarter. With the Bears leading 10-3, Rodgers drove the Packers to the Bears’ 17-yard line. Defensive end Julius Peppers hit Rodgers as he was attempting to throw and knocked the ball loose — with no call from the officials as it lay on the ground. The Bears finished the play as if it were an incomplete pass — including linebacker James Anderson running over to the ball without retrieving it. Packers receiver Jarrett Boykin casually picked it up and — at Rodgers’ direction after Rodgers was alerted by the Packers’ sideline that the ball was live — suddenly ran 15 yards for a touchdown that gave the Packers a 10-7 lead.

It was a stunning turn of events and a painfully ironic one for the Bears in their first season after coach Lovie Smith was fired. Under Smith, Bears defenders would have swarmed to that ball the second it left Rodgers’ hand — part of the takeaway mentality that was the signature of Smith’s nine-year tenure. Less than a season after he left, that instinct already was gone.

“When you have chances, you’ve got to take advantage of them,” Desai said. “Obviously, everybody brings up that [pass] play with [Conte]. But there were so many other plays in that game.

“The [Boykin] one jumps to my head, which [is why] you’ll hear me screaming every single practice if there’s a ball on the ground to scoop that ball up — because to me, that was a play where we pretty much gave them a free touchdown. You make a great play, you get a sack, it’s a fumble, and we didn’t scoop it up. If there’s anything that haunts me from that game, it’s that play.”

This is just part of the history that coach Matt Nagy’s Bears will have to overcome to earn a wild-card playoff berth Sunday against the Packers and Rodgers at Soldier Field. The Bears can qualify with a victory but also can back in with a loss if the Rams beat the Cardinals.

That’s a cushion the Bears might end up needing because sneaking into the playoffs has not been their specialty. In fact, they have not won a wild-card playoff berth since 1994, when they finished 9-7 in coach Dave Wannstedt’s second season. That’s also the last time they qualified for the playoffs in Week 17.

(The Bears are one of only two teams that have not made the playoffs as a wild card in that span. The other is the Texans, who came into the league in 2002. The Bears also are the only team that hasn’t played a road playoff game since 1994, when they upset the Vikings 35-18 at the Metrodome before the 49ers routed them 44-15 at Candlestick Park.)

For the Bears, it has been all or nothing since Wannstedt’s 1994 team backed in after losing three of its final four games, including a Week 17 loss to the Patriots. The Bears have won division titles in 2001 (13-3) under Dick Jauron; 2005 (11-5), 2006 (13-3) and 2010 (11-5) under Smith; and 2018 (12-4) under Nagy.

Those were glorious seasons — including the 2006 season that ended with Super Bowl XLI in Miami. But the Bears are among the least successful teams in the NFL over the last 25 years, with just five postseason appearances; only the Raiders (four) have fewer.

A big reason why is their inability to sneak into the playoffs. They have a frustrating habit of coming up just short when they have a chance — getting eliminated from playoff contention in Week 17 four times, including 2013. The others:

• In 2012, the Bears lost five of six games after a 7-1 start but won their final two games against the Cardinals (28-13) and Lions (26-24) to keep their hopes alive heading into Week 17. At 10-6, the Bears lost out on the final berth when the Vikings beat the Packers in Week 17.

• In 2008, the Bears beat both the Saints and Packers in overtime for a three-game winning streak heading into Week 17. They would have made the playoffs with a victory over the 7-8 Texans at Reliant Stadium, but they lost 31-24 after leading 10-0.

Bears running backs coach Charles London was an offensive assistant on that team. He remembers the Bears being in a situation similar to the one they’re in now. Kind of.

“I kind of actually blacked it out of my mind,” London said. “But maybe that’s something I’ll remind the guys about. You’ve got to take advantage of these opportunities. There are a lot of guys who play a lot of games in this league who never even make the playoffs.”

• In 1995, the Bears lost five of six games after a 6-2 start but won their final two against the Buccaneers (31-10) and Eagles (20-14) to finish 9-7. They lost out on a playoff berth when the Falcons beat the 49ers in Week 17.

Nagy, of course, had nothing to do with those previous failures. But he knows what he’s up against. He does now, anyway.

“You understand it,” Nagy said, “because when you’re a Bears fan and you’ve been a part of this for your entire life and you mentioned about 1994 — obviously that’s very important. We get that. We would never disrespect that, for those that haven’t been a part of that feeling. We recognize it.

“But we know with where we’re at right now and what sits in front of us [that] we need to play every single play Sunday as fast and productive as we can together. This is a really good opponent we’re playing. You understand that. Now . . . we’ve got to worry about us. All that other stuff with the history, that comes with us playing well, and hopefully we continue that.”

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