Considering last year's 7-9 finish and the turnover among assistant coaches in the offseason, players said the just-completed 12-6 season was a successful one, even though they fell one game short of the Super Bowl.
But it might take awhile before they can fully appreciate it.
"After tonight, it will be a successful season," tight end Greg Olsen said after the game. "Right now, it's hard to really say it was successful, when you lose like that, when you're that close to being in the Super Bowl. It's definitely a tough one to swallow here at home. I know our fans were really counting on this one, as were we. It's disappointing, but I think a week from now we can look back and say for a young team we made a lot of progress, and let's come back next year and try to make it that next step."
Despite trailing 14-0 at halftime and being outgained 252-103, including 104-38 on the ground, the Bears battled back in the second half. The Packers' only points came on an interception return, and the Bears outgained them 198-104.
"There's a lot of disappointment in the locker room," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But we feel like we made progress with our program this year, and eventually we'll put that ring on."
Expectations were low for the Bears back when training camp started in late July, based on three consecutive seasons without a playoff game. But with an NFC North championship and a 12-6 record, they achieved most of their goals.
"I don't think we can hang our heads because we went above and beyond what people think we should have done," cornerback Charles Tillman said. "There's only going to be one team that ends the [postseason] with a win, and that's the team that wins the Super Bowl."
LB Brian Urlacher
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Bears played great defense for most of the season, which was especially evident in three games against the Packers, in which Green Bay's offense scored a total of 41 points. After bending in the first half of Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the defense blanked the Packers in the second half and quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a 55.4 passer rating. The defense was especially tough against the run, and it forced 35 turnovers. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and defensive end Julius Peppers all were voted to the Pro Bowl.
The offense also made strides, as a line that was bad to begin with improved enough to be considered average by the end of the year. Matt Forte established himself as one of the league's better all-around running backs. Quarterback Jay Cutler played much better than he did in his first season as a Bear.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The Bears are still an inconsistent team when it comes to throwing the ball. Devin Hester probably plateaued as a receiver and, while Johnny Knox took another big step in his second NFL season, he occasionally disappears. The offensive line, while improved, is still probably the weakest link on the team, and young players must be groomed behind 13-year center Olin Kreutz and 10-year guard Roberto Garza. That unit was improved in run-blocking, but it did a poor job of protecting Cutler, who also showed a tendency to hold on to the ball too long.
Cutler left Sunday's game with a knee injury suffered in the first half. He was removed after a three-and-out to start the second half, and said he couldn't put proper pressure on his plant leg.
"There was no decision at all," Smith said. "He was injured. He was hurt, and he couldn't go. The trainers and doctors... made that decision." ...
Forte supplied more than half of the Bears' 301 total yards of offense, with 70 yards on 17 carries and 90 yards on 10 receptions. ...
QB Todd Collins, who for unexplained reasons spent most of the season as the No. 2 ahead of Caleb Hanie, failed to complete any of his four passes after Cutler was injured. Collins was benched after two possessions. ...
Hanie, who was not a Mike Martz favorite, nearly rallied the Bears from a 14-0 deficit by completing 13 of 20 passes for 153 yards in just over one quarter of play. He had a 35-yard touchdown pass but was intercepted twice, once during a desperation drive at the end of the game. ...
Urlacher had 10 tackles, a sack, an interception (and 39-yard return), two tackles for loss and a pass breakup. ...
Hester totaled just 16 yards on three punt returns and 24 yards on one kickoff return. He did not catch a pass, although he was targeted four times.
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