The Bears had the Eagles right where they wanted them Sunday night – until they didn’t.
The home team had built a hard-fought 15-10 lead in a defensive battle at delirious Soldier Field with 4:48 left. It needed only for its elite defense to do what it had done most of the regular season and for 55 minutes more in the wild-card game.
But, when it mattered most, the Bears’ defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in multiple categories, could not keep the Eagles from driving 60 yards for the winning touchdown in a bitter 16-15 loss. The defeat was even more gut-wrenching when Cody Parkey’s potential game-winning, 43-yard field goal attempt caromed off the left upright, then the crossbar and then fell into the end zone with five seconds remaining.
Pat O’Donnell shanked a 36-yard punt that gave the Eagles the ball at their 40-yard line to set up their crucial TD drive. Although the Bears had allowed only 241 total yards until then, quarterback Nick Foles completed five of eight passes, including an 11-yard toss to former Bear Alshon Jeffery on third-and-9 that gave the visitors first-and-goal at the 2-yard line with 1:14 left.
It appeared that once again the Bears’ defense would show why it has a legitimate claim to the title of “NFL’s best.” Outside linebacker Khalil Mack stuffed Darren Sproles for no gain on back-to-back plays, with help from Eddie Goldman on the second one. Then Foles threw incomplete to Jeffery, who was blanketed by Kyle Fuller. But on fourth down, Foles rolled right and hit Golden Tate inches beyond the goal line for the winner.
“We played a great game,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who played another great game individually, helping hold the Eagles to 42 rushing yards and a 1.8-yard-a-carry average. “We fought to the end. They came out, and they got the play that they needed. That’s just what we have to deal with.”
After the Eagles got the one play they had to have, all the pent-up energy at Soldier Field that had built up over the eight years since the Bears’ last trip to the playoffs evaporated, along with the noise.
“We can nitpick at the game and say we could have had a stop here and there, but it comes down to execution,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said of the final drive. “We know there were a lot of plays we should have made. Our defense, we have the right attitude and we have the right guys. We’ve been holding it down the whole season. You hate for it to happen at this time, but stuff happens.”
Hicks had talked in the days leading up to the game about how incomplete a great regular season would be without a great postseason. The defense played great for most of Sunday’s game, but that won’t be what’s remembered.
“It still don’t count, even though we played a great game, people have a way of remembering the one that finishes on top,” Hicks said. “So anybody that had a great defense for the last whatever many years, people don’t really remember them. They know they had a year, but they don’t know that they were a team that could finish it all the way out. Those are the teams that get the respect and the attention, the ones that can finish it in a big, big, big game.”
As they had all year, the Bears’ defense did a lot of good things Sunday. During the regular season, its 27 interceptions were six more than the next-best team. And it made two more against Foles. One was by rookie inside linebacker Roquan Smith, when he somehow stole the ball from Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood, despite being behind Smallwood, who appeared to have made the catch. Smith led the Bears with seven tackles.
Later, safety Adrian Amos kept points off the board with an end-zone interception as multiple pass rushers pressured Foles. But, ultimately, it wasn’t enough, as Foles rebounded to throw for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
“We don’t feel good as a whole because we didn’t finish,” said Trevathan, who tied for second on the team with six tackles, along with Mack and Amos. “We just didn’t have that complete game all the way around.”
Still, the defense was the driving force behind a team that rose from the ashes of four straight last-place finishes in the NFC North to a 12-4 record and first place.
“We’re no longer the hunter; we’re the hunted,” Hicks said. “In our division. I’m sure they’re sitting at home thinking, ‘Man that’s a really good team. They lost tonight, but damn, that’s a really good team.’ ”
But they weren’t quite good enough to get past the defending Super Bowl-champion Eagles.