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‘It seemed like it was meant for us’: Bears’ defense comes up one play short

It seemed like a perfect way for the Bears to put a finishing, signature touch on a thrilling playoff victory — with a valiant goal-line stand by a defense that rose to elite status this season and fueled the Bears’ rise to Super Bowl contention.

Nick Foles’ 11-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery on a third-and-nine gave the Eagles a first-and-goal
at the 2 — a death knell for most defenses, but just another challenge for this one.

“Just how our season was going, it just seemed like it was meant for us,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said.

“If anybody can do it, Vic Fangio and this defense can do it,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “We put up our best fight and unfortunately they got in there. That’s the way it goes.”

Bears nickelback Sherrick McManis (27) is too late to prevent Eagles wide receiver Golden Tate (left) from catching a two-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles with 56 seconds to play in the fourth quarter Sunday that gave the Eagles a 16-15 victory in a wild-card game at Soldier Field. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bears nearly pulled it off. Khalil Mack stopped Darren Sproles for no gain on first down. Mack and Eddie Goldman stopped Sproles on second down. Foles threw incomplete to Jeffery at the goal line, with Kyle Fuller defending, on third down.

But on fourth down, Foles found a way — with a sprint-out pass to slot receiver Golden Tate, who beat Bears nickel back Sherrick McManis at the goal line for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 16-15 lead with 56 seconds to play.

The Bears were oh so close.

“You could give [credit] to them,” Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan. “Good play call. Good design. Just by the formation, it looked like a sprint-out to me. But it was just a play they made and we didn’t.”

It was a tough finish for a defense that ignited the Bears’ renaissance this season. Playing without injured All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson, the Bears stifled Foles throughout the game, with interceptions by safety Adrian Amos and linebacker Roquan Smith helping to hold the Eagles to 10 points and 240 yards with 4:48 left and the Bears leading 15-10.

But needing one more stop, the Bears’ vaunted defense was victimized by Foles and his knack for coming up with big plays in the clutch. Starting at his 40 after a Bears three-and-out and a 36-yard punt by Pat O’Donnell, Foles completed passes of 15 yards to Jeffery, 10 to tight end Dallas Goedert, eight to receiver Nelson Agholor, 13 to tight end Zach Ertz and 11 to Jeffery to set up the fateful first-and-goal.

“It’s tough on all of us,” Mack said. “Love this group of guys. Everybody gave everything they have. That’s all you can ask for.”

By no means was the Bears’ defense the culprit in this one. But the final drive and coming so close to a goal-line stand that would have been celebrated in franchise history left an empty feeling.

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“It stings. It stings,” Trevathan said. “I’ve been around a long time. Super Bowl loss [with the Broncos in 2013] — promised myself I was going to get back. The thing I tell the young guys is, remember this feeling. Let it fuel you this whole offseason to come back better than ever and get what’s yours next year.”

Hicks was already fighting through his disappointment to look toward next season.

“Pretty tough [to take],” Hicks said. “You don’t like the outcome. I’m sure our fans don’t like the outcome. Everybody in  our building is frustrated with the outcome. We have one choice, though: Either you sit here and mope about it or you start making plans for the future, for next season. This is what you got. This is what we’re going to deal with. If you wanted a different result, maybe make a different play. You’ve got to swallow this and let it hurt a little bit. We’ll be all right.”