CHICAGO (AP) - The loose ball was there for the taking, for an eternity. Then there was a major coverage mistake in the fourth quarter.
The Chicago Bears handed those two big plays to the Green Bay Packers, and they sure made the most of them.
Matt Forte rushed for 110 yards and scored three touchdowns, but a communication problem in Chicago's secondary led to Aaron Rodgers' winning TD pass in the final minute of the Bears' 33-28 loss on Sunday that gave the Packers the NFC North title.
The Bears (8-8) had a chance to win the division the last two weeks and failed each time. They were wiped out at Philadelphia, losing 54-11 to the Eagles, and then came the heartbreaking home loss to the Packers in the season finale.
''That's a tough one to swallow,'' said Jay Cutler, who threw for 226 yards in what might have been his final game with the Bears. The enigmatic quarterback is eligible for free agency, an issue that is sure to dominate the first part of Chicago's offseason.
The Bears were in good shape at the start of the fourth quarter, grabbing a 28-20 lead on Brandon Marshall's 5-yard touchdown reception. Marshall made a great adjustment on the pass from Cutler, turning away from Tramon Williams to grab the ball in the back of the end zone after he wasn't sure if it was a run or a pass play.
But the Packers responded with a six-play, 77-yard drive that ended with Eddie Lacy's 6-yard TD run, making it 28-27. Then the Bears were forced to punt, with Cutler just missing Alshon Jeffery on a deep ball on third-and-17, setting the stage for the big finish.
''That third down to Alshon, I wish I could have pushed it out a few more inches and kept the drive going,'' Cutler said. ''It is those little things along the course of a game that you wish you could have back, especially when it ends that way.''
It made a difference in this one.
With its season on the line, Green Bay put together a 15-play, 87-yard drive that lasted almost six minutes. It survived two fourth-and-1s along the way, with John Kuhn plunging forward for one conversion and Jordy Nelson catching a 6-yard pass on another one.
''We were close, man,'' Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. ''We caught them in some third-and-shorts. They converted on fourth downs. ... It was close, but we just didn't get the job done.''
Facing a fourth-and-8 from the Chicago 48, Rodgers bought some time with his feet and found Randall Cobb all alone down the field. Cobb had enough time to wait for Rodgers' pass before taking it into the end zone with 38 seconds left.
Rodgers, who threw for 318 yards in his return from a broken collarbone, sprinted down the field while pumping his right arm after Cobb's second TD reception of the game.
''Aaron and Randall just made a phenomenal play - those two guys making a great, great play that will be running on the highlight reel for the rest of my time on this Earth,'' Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. ''What a great finish.''
It was a different viewpoint on Chicago's sideline. The Bears were blitzing on the play, but coach Marc Trestman said it was man coverage and several defenders said it was a zone on the winning TD.
''We had a blitz called and not everybody on the back end was on the same page,'' cornerback Zack Bowman said. ''We all take full responsibility for it and we have to get everybody on the same page.''
That was the last of two confounding plays by the once-stout Bears defense, which struggled all season long while the offense flourished in Trestman's first season in charge.
Green Bay had a first down at the Chicago 17 in the second quarter when a sack and strip against Rodgers by Julius Peppers turned into one unusual touchdown. Jarrett Boykin ran across the field, picked up the loose ball as play stopped. One thing, though: The whistle never blew.
With Rodgers standing nearby, Boykin turned and headed 15 yards to the end zone. Rodgers then threw his hands up to signal a touchdown, and after a replay review, it stood.
That stunned the crowd and gave the Packers a 10-7 lead.
''I didn't hear a whistle so I was as curious as everybody else on why nobody was moving towards the ball,'' Trestman said. ''Nobody. And certainly completely disappointed. As I told the players, no one play is going to make a difference in the game. That was a highly unusual play. No doubt about it.''
NOTES: Asked about his contract situation, Cutler replied: ''I think we'll deal with that later in the week.'' Marshall guaranteed Cutler would be back next season. ... Bears right tackle Jordan Mills injured his left foot early in the first quarter. The rookie used crutches to move around the locker room after the game and said he would know more after he was checked out by a doctor on Monday.
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