Bears come up small on big stage

CHICAGO -- No other team in the playoffs, arguably in the past several playoffs, had so much riding on one game.

If the Bears had beaten the Green Bay Packers on Sunday instead of losing 21-14 in the NFC Championship Game, they would have advanced to their second Super Bowl in five years. Forget the three years in between, that would have put them in elite company with teams like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and New England.

If the Bears had won with Jay Cutler, the much-maligned quarterback would have been elevated at least a rung or two on the NFL's quarterback ladder. Elite? Maybe not, but depending on how he performed in the Super Bowl, he'd certainly be entrenched in the next group, having finally won the respect of fans and fellow players.

If the Bears had won Sunday, we would've started talking in earnest about an extension for coach Lovie Smith, who has one year remaining on his contract, and it would be tough to argue against it. Coordinators Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli? Made men. Mike Tice? Do anything to keep him.

If the Bears had beaten their NFC rivals, no one would have cared that they could have eliminated the Packers from the playoffs in the last game of the regular season. Nor that they defeated a team of questionable playoff caliber in their only other postseason game last week.

If they had won, all that talk about lucky breaks wouldn't have mattered because championship teams make their own luck, dammit.

Man, how the pendulum swings.

It is not easy jumping on a team when it's down, particularly when it finishes the regular season 11-5 and 12-6 overall, after very few predicted a finish of .500 or better, much less a berth in the conference championship game.

Nor is it fair to talk about a team's heart when the defense clamps down on the best quarterback in the playoffs, limiting him to 7-of-15 passing for 88 yards with an interception in the second half, and imposes its will on the Packers' offense, holding it scoreless with 104 net yards.

"Yeah, I would have assumed that [we'd have a good chance to win holding the Packers to 14 points in the first half] and we did," said Bears end Julius Peppers. "We had a good chance at the end. It came down to the last drive with 30 seconds left. I would call that a good chance to win the game."

It is tough to pick on a Bears offense that was shut out in the first half but came back and scored twice in the fourth quarter behind its third-string quarterback. Mind you, the quarterback, Caleb Hanie, had 14 career pass attempts when he entered the game, and threw his first career touchdown pass when he connected with Earl Bennett on a 35-yard scoring play to make a game of it at 21-14 with 4:43 remaining in regulation.

Hanie had already led the Bears on an eight-play, 67-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter in his first action of the day, his first playoff game ever and his first reps of the week in which he actually ran his own team's plays.

"I'm proud of him," Peppers said of Hanie. "I'm proud of the whole team the way we fought today. ... You have to accept [the loss], it's reality, it is what it is. But do we like it? No, we don't like it at all. We play to win. We don't play to play a good game, play close and lose. It's just disappointment."

Yes, it is very disappointing.

It was also frustrating that Hanie was put in the position to lead the Bears to the NFC championship having not played a snap in three and a half months and having thrown seven passes all season.

It was perplexing that Hanie had to lose the championship on a fourth-and-5 from the Green Bay 44 with 47 seconds left when he threw his second interception going no-huddle without a timeout.

And it was disappointing that Cutler was questioned by random NFL players on Twitter -- "I love jealous people when they are watching our game on TV while their season is over," said Brian Urlacher in his postgame remarks -- and in countless chat rooms.

Why is it that when the Bears finally acquire a quarterback with the necessary talent to take them to a Super Bowl and win it, his character and integrity are challenged because his injured knee was not immobilized on the sideline or after the game?

If Peyton Manning were in the same position, his knee "shaking" and "swinging" as Cutler's was, looking like a major ligament was torn, according to center Olin Kreutz, would anyone question him?

The Bears closed ranks as you would expect they would afterward, defending their quarterback's toughness. But what of their own seeming lack of it in half of the biggest game of the year on their home field?

The pendulum swung Sunday, and so the Bears are now faced with an offseason of defense.

"Of course [it was a successful season]," Kreutz said. "But the main goal is the Super Bowl, and if you don't win it, you're just one of 31 teams."

"It's disappointing," said Greg Olsen, "but a week from now we can look back and say 'Hey, for what we went through this year, the new coaches, the new offense, I think we made a lot of progress and let's come back next year and take the next step.'"

Absolutely. And it should be with considerably more optimism than they were met with last year. But it will be with considerable scrutiny as well, because on one Sunday, a team with so much to gain, found out how very much it also had to lose.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.