CHICAGO — The Green Bay Packers were down to their last chance.
Their last chance to keep the Chicago Bears from completing a surprise takeover of the NFC North Division. Their last chance to play another meaningful snap this season. Their last chance to look like the team we've been watching since 1992.
It was all there for the Packers early in the fourth quarter. They scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the game at 14-14 and got the ball back when Bears coach Matt Nagy thought letting running back Tarik Cohen play quarterback was a good idea and Cohen fumbled the ball back to Green Bay.
"I thought the momentum was on our side," defensive end Dean Lowry said. "Our sideline was pumped up. We felt really good after that."
They didn't act like it. Following a script that has played on a continuous loop all season, the Packers did almost nothing right from that point on and departed Chicago with a 24-17 loss and back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1990 and '91.
Former coach Mike McCarthy isn't off the hook for a 5-8-1 record in a season that began with Super Bowl hopes, but still another fourth-quarter road failure Sunday showed that plenty of people are hanging on the hook with him. Even with interim coach Joe Philbin calling the shots, the same old problems cropped up and, when push came to shove against a good team, the Packers simply weren't good enough.
Take your pick. Did the Packers fail because quarterback Aaron Rodgers continued to miss open receivers? Because the makeshift offensive line had no chance against elite pass-rushers Kahlil Mack and Leonard Floyd? Because the young defensive backs continued to make critical mistakes? Because the special teams remained a comedy of errors?
Simply put, the Packers will miss the postseason for a second consecutive season because they are no longer a playoff-caliber team. You don't go 0-7 on the road because you're getting bad breaks. You go 0-7 on the road because the opponent plays better than you, coaches better than you or has more talent than you do. Sometimes, it's all three.
"They definitely played better in the fourth quarter," said Philbin, now 1-1 as McCarthy's fill-in. "They made more plays than we did and certainly deserved to win. Last week, we had a team victory where all three phases contributed. Today, all three phases needed to do better. Coaching needed to be better."
Unfortunately, we've heard it all before. Sunday, we saw it all again.
After the Packers recovered Cohen's fumble, they had an opportunity to wipe away a season's worth of frustration. Instead, the next 15 snaps were an utter disaster, one that mirrored their season perfectly, with the offense, defense and special teams all failing in the clutch.
On first down, Rodgers was sacked by Floyd. On the next two, he overthrew wide receivers Randall Cobb and Marquez Valdes-Scantling when they had a step on their man deep. On the ensuring punt, a holding penalty on long-snapper Hunter Bradley set up the Bears in Packers territory.
The Bears quickly drove 45 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, with penalties on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Bashaud Breeland helping them along. On tight end Trey Burton's 13-yard touchdown catch, safety Josh Jones or cornerback Tony Brown — or both — blew the coverage.
But it wasn't over yet. On first down, Rodgers was sacked by Mack. On second, Cobb dropped a slant pass. After a second straight three-and-out, Cohen returned a Packers punt 44 yards to the 15, setting up a field goal that pushed the Bears ahead 24-14 and all but ended the suspense. That relegated the Packers to closing out the season with two meaningless games.
"It’s obviously been difficult," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Nobody anticipated this happening, but the reality is that we’re not getting blown out every week. I’m trying to find a silver lining because that’s all you can do at this point in the season. We’re that close. We’ve done it. We’ve done it for many years. It’s about getting back to that."
One ongoing problem is Rodgers' lack of accuracy. Normally one of the NFL's most accurate throwers, he missed several open receivers again Sunday.
Hindered by a knee injury all season, Rodgers' groin tightened up on the Hail Mary to end the first half and he struggled in the fourth quarter, including a potential touchdown pass that was slightly behind tight end Jimmy Graham and resulted in his first interception in 402 throws. Afterward, Rodgers attributed his accuracy problems to not being on the same page with his largely new cast of receivers.
Whatever the reason, the Packers aren't good enough to win without Rodgers playing lights-out. We suspected that when he was injured last season and now we know it.
"It’s definitely disappointing," Rodgers said. "The expectation is to compete for championships. (Chicago) is a good football team, but like I told some of the guys, I look forward to the battles over the years. I like our chances in the division moving forward. Obviously, there will be some changes in the offseason. We’ll finish this year out the right way and then we’ll look to the future, which I think is still really bright in Green Bay."
After Sunday, a lot has to happen before next season for Rodgers' words to come true.