They knew it was on them. They've always known it was on them.
And yet there was the Bears' defense again Thursday night, continuing in this weird capricious journey they've called the 2009 season, down one quarter, up the next. Struggling to regain an identity that is hard to even recall anymore and yet knowing inherently if not them, then who?
And so they forced three turnovers against a group not known for coughing it up. They sacked Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb three times. They made some stops when they had to, allowed their beleaguered offense to actually take the lead, which they carried into the fourth quarter.
A potentially ugly win? Who on either side of the ball for the Bears could have possibly cared at that point? If only they could hold on. If only the defense could reach down for something that clearly is not there anymore. If only . . .
Instead, McNabb and the Eagles made it look easy again, marching methodically down field, 62 yards on 11 plays, with LeSean McCoy scampering 10 yards around left end and through a hole large enough to navigate an SUV. Into the end zone for the touchdown and a 24-20 lead that would hold up for the final 5½ minutes and the victory.
"The loss . . . and this stuff is getting old fast," said Adewale Ogunleye. "It's frustrating. And the lack of consistency is becoming unsettling and disturbing."
And finally, too much from which to recover as the Bears, at 4-6 after losses in five of their past six games, can no longer make an argument that this season is worth saving.
A victory against the Eagles and the Bears would have been just one game behind the Packers and Falcons in the running for two wild-card berths. No lie, they were still in it. Since the current playoff format was instituted in 2002, three teams who began the season 4-5 -- the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets in '02 and the Green Bay Packers in '03 -- reached the playoffs, with the Jets and Packers even winning a round.
But someone had to take the reins for the Bears and somehow it felt like it was on the defense -- just like it always has been. Fair or not after Brian Urlacher went down. Realistic or not with a young, unproven secondary. Necessary or not with a new, hotshot quarterback.
"With the addition of Jay [Cutler], the pressure was even more on the defense because we had a quarterback who was proven, who could play in this league," Ogunleye said. "And if we were able to play sound football, he was going to help our team. And we played well at times. But 24 points isn't going to get it done."
After seemingly rebounding from devastating defensive performances against Cincinnati and Arizona to flash some resiliency and toughness against San Francisco, the Bears were back home. With any luck, the vaunted "Fourth Phase" would remember who they were supposed to boo and the Bears' defense would ride the wave of last playoff-gasp adrenaline.
Except that McNabb came out and looked like a 24-year-old, completing five of his first seven passes for 56 yards and a quarterback rating of 134.5 in the first quarter. The Eagles amassed 125 yards of total offense and took a 10-0 lead.
"But then we started playing a little better," said Alex Brown. "We started playing faster and having a little fun out there."
Brown was seemingly around every play. Lance Briggs had a sack and Tommie Harris another. Zack Bowman had his fifth interception of the season and third in three games. Charles Tillman forced three fumbles, two that the Bears recovered.
But then another punch in the gut -- a 48-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to DeSean Jackson over rookie safety Al Afalava, a sixth-round draft pick who arguably shouldn't be entrusted to save your season if you're the Bears' defense.
But then, who is this Bears' defense? The team is now 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less. It's the third game in the last five that an opposing quarterback has had a passer rating of 100 points or more.
They can no longer pretend.
"When you love the game, it's not hard to show up on Sunday, play and hopefully give maximum effort," said Ogunleye. "But Sunday night, it's starting to really be dreadful, going home and facing this city, the fans, facing you guys [in the media]. It's starting to become a drag."
They will show up next week at Minnesota because the schedule tells them to and because their coach, while admitting that 4-6 was "not in the master plan," still tells them there is "still a lot of football to go," but they know better.
"We're professionals, so that's what you have to do," Brown said. "You have to go out and expect to win and prepare like we're going to win, and that's what we'll do. We have some veteran guys on this team, and we need to go to Minnesota and win a ballgame."
Forget walking the walk. Even talking the talk doesn't sound very convincing anymore.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com