DETROIT -- When Justin Fields took off for a 29-yard scramble to convert a critical third-and-15 Sunday in Detroit, it felt like he was running toward something bigger. Toward turning the page.
Fields popped up after the conversion and started dancing. The Bears were handling the NFC North-leading Lions with relative ease. The defense picked off Lions quarterback Jared Goff three times, and Fields was making plays with his arm and legs that had to make some people believe this was the start of something.
A statement win over the Lions that would have been the biggest win of Fields' career and the Matt Eberflus era was within the Bears' grasp Sunday. For a moment, things started to feel different.
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Then, the Bears became the Bears again.
Up by 12 with five minutes left, the Bears allowed the Lions to march down the field in 1:16. A quick three-and-out in which the Bears mostly took the ball out of Fields' hands followed. The Lions promptly marched right back down the field and scored again to take a 29-26 lead with 29 seconds remaining.
An unraveling of monumental proportions was complete, and it took all of 4:20 seconds to complete in the 31-26 meltdown loss.
NFL teams are now 27-3 when they win the turnover battle by three. The Bears' loss Sunday is one of those three. Since the NFL-AFL merger, there have been 61 teams that have held the ball for at least 40 minutes and collected four takeaways. The Bears are just the third team to lose and the first to do so in regulation. Since 1932, no NFL team with a plus-three turnover margin and 40-plus minutes of possession had ever lost. Teams were 48-0. They are now 48-1.
Ten days ago, the Bears believed they found something in a gritty win over the Carolina Panthers. For 55 minutes Sunday, it looked like they did.
But this team -- staff and players -- still needs to learn how to win.
“It’s tough. It hurts. It hurts a lot," tight end Cole Kmet said after the loss. "Third time I think we’ve handled these guys pretty well in my last three years. You go back to last year at home, we kind of kicked their ass and lose the game. The year prior to that, kicked their ass and lose the game. I’m talking physically, time of possession, all those things. We just got to find a way. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard.”
Kmet is typically one to find the silver linings even in losses. That time is over for one of the franchise's cornerstones.
"Yeah," Kmet said when asked if it was time the moral victories ended. "We need to win."
A throughline of the Eberflus era -- all 28 games -- is the Bears' inability to execute in critical moments. They manhandled a Lions team that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender for three-and-a-half quarters Sunday. They've done that before.
When winning time came, they crumbled. Folded like a cheap suit. Dissolved like a wet paper bag.
The Bears' locker room has shown resolve throughout a turbulent season. They've remained confident the right pieces are in place, and the right people are at the controls. There has been belief that the expected results would come.
Sunday's loss sent them searching for answers. Answers that this team might not be equipped to find in the final six games of the season.
That journey will have to start inward for key members of this Bears foundation.
"We just got to finish it out," running back Khalil Herbert said. "I just got to make a play."
Cornerback Jaylon Johnson lamented two dropped interceptions that would have put the Lions out early.
"I should have capitalized," Johnsons said. "I felt, honestly, I had two opportunities to put 14 points on the board. Just for me, you got to finish those better. Not easy catches, but I’m a player that can make those plays and I got to do it.
“Pretty frustrating. I mean, I feel like, honestly, the whole game we whooped they ass and then they came through when it mattered.”
Linebacker T.J. Edwards maintained the Bears have the right guys in the locker room. This won't break them. It can be a catalyst for future games in the cauldron.
But eventually, they have to learn to win. However, learning experiences are only those if lessons are digested and changes are made.
That hasn't been the case so far.
There were too many mistakes by supposed foundational rebuild members to count.
There were Johnson's dropped interceptions and Herbert's inability to grind out key yards in what should be a game-icing two-minute drive. There was a missed deep connection between Fields and Tyler Scott on which the rookie "misjudged" the ball. That would have iced the game. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds missed key open-field tackles on the Lions' two late scoring drives. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's play-calling on the final two-minute drive was stuff out of the "play not to win" bible. Eberflus elected to kick two short field goals instead of going for it when he had early in the game.
Sometimes it's just in your DNA. It trickles down from the top, and when these instances keep happening over and over again, it becomes habit.
The Bears have had multiple losses this season that led to leaders huddling in the locker room after to plot a course out of the wreckage.
This time, it was Fields and Edwards: a hometown linebacker and a homegrown quarterback debriefing on what went wrong and what comes next.
"Just finish," Fields said after the loss. "Like I said, the deep ball [to Scott], he’s just got to lock in and run through that. And defense, that’s hard to – spoke to TJ after the game, he said it to me, like the matter of the fact is we can’t let up 12 points in the last however so minutes there were in the game. Just finishing, finishing, and when it comes down to it, just making plays. So, can’t really explain it. You’ve kind of just got to go out there and do it."
With six games left, these Bears are all but out of time to figure it out.
When the season ends and the autopsy of a 2023 season that started with unrealistic expectations gets underway, it'll find the cause of death was a lack of execution brought on by a rot that might be systemic.
A rot that might have to be ripped out to cleanse the foundation of a losing poison that has seeped deep within. The only question then becomes: What's the cause of the rot?