This one could linger

ST. LOUIS -- Early in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Devin Hester received a punt and took off. He beat tackles, made the right cuts and raced into the end zone.

Vintage Hester. Typical Bears.

With the score, Hester had the NFL record for combined return touchdowns and the Chicago Bears were back in business, trailing by only six points, their closest deficit since the second play of the game.

But a yellow flag lay a few yards away. Holding by Craig Steltz. The play was nullified.

It was a fitting moment for this game.

Hester couldn't believe it. He dramatically fell to the ground. Thousands of Bears fans in attendance had a different vocal reaction, one not fit for a family website.

The Bears got the points back on a long, 12-play drive, thanks in part to three St. Louis penalties, but it took 7 1/2 minutes, give or take an hour of real time.

It didn't matter. The defense couldn't hold St. Louis and the Rams wound up with a fairly easy 42-21 victory.

The Bears (6-5) lost a golden chance to improve their postseason chances.

Detroit lost to Tampa Bay, Green Bay tied with Minnesota, but the Bears couldn't sneak a win out of St. Louis.

With the Lions holding the tiebreaker, this could be the game the Bears look at when they're sitting at home in January.

"On the sideline, a few of us were talking," receiver Brandon Marshall said. "This game is just so tough. National Football League, you never know. It seems like these last few years, it's going down to the last few games, and it looks like it's going to be the same this year.

"We had an opportunity to take advantage of what else happened in our division, but we didn't. That just goes to show you how tough this game is."

Or it shows us that the Bears aren't a playoff team. They're too injury-ravaged on defense, too sloppy on special teams and not quite powerful enough on offense.

But I like his positive attitude better.

"We're capable of change and we're capable of more growth," Marshall said.

Well, no time like the present to prove it.

In reality, the run defense has been bad all year and it's getting worse as the defense gets thinner and thinner because of injuries. The linebackers are two-thirds rookies, and while the defensive line is getting better rushing the quarterback, there are gaps the size of the Metrodome for running backs. Speaking of which, Adrian Peterson has to be excited for next week.

But the penalties are a disturbing new trend.

The Bears were penalized 10 times for 84 yards, spread out between all three phases. I'm sure a few of the inebriated Bears fans in attendance got party fouls as well.

This came a week after committing 13 penalties for 111 yards in an overtime win over Baltimore. Before that, the Bears hadn't committed more than six in a game.

The notoriously disciplined head coach Marc Trestman might be a stickler for detail, but aside from the passing game, his team is devolving into mild chaos. From Kyle Long getting 15 yards for unnecessary roughness during a melee to Earl Bennett negating a Matt Forte touchdown on a block in the back, the Bears couldn't get out of their own way.

"It's been like that the last two weeks," Marshall said. "That's not us. Usually we play a pretty clean game. Today, just like last week, we shot ourselves in the foot a few times. We weren't able to overcome penalties and stupid mistakes."

Once upon a time you could count on the Bears' defense to keep the team in games and for the backup quarterback to take them out of it.

But Josh McCown played great once again -- 36-for-47 for 352 yards, two touchdowns. He gave up a fumble that went for a touchdown and threw his first interception, but this was after the game was effectively over.

Jay Cutler's ankle injury is barely a factor. But with so many injuries on defense, the Bears had little room for error on a fast surface.

So when speedster Tavon Austin took a cutback end-around for a 65-yard touchdown on the third play of the game, you had a feeling it was going to be a long day for this group.

And it was.

A week after giving up 174 rushing yards to the Ravens, the Bears gave up 258 on 29 carries, or an average of 8.9 per carry.

Before Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens kneeled three times for minus-3 yards on the last drive of the game, the Bears had given up 10 yards per carry, which would've been a franchise record for a game. At least they avoided historic ignominy.

"We're going to be real critical of ourselves when we get back watch the film," Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic said. "There'll be no hard feelings. We've got to take coaching and we have to play better."

Clemens had a workman-like game, 10-for-22 for 167 yards, but he didn't commit a turnover.

The Rams' no-name tandem of Benny Cunningham (13 carries for 109 yards) and Zac Stacy (12 for 87 before leaving the game early) had little problems finding space. Each had a touchdown.

It's the sixth straight game the Bears have given up at least 123 rushing yards and the eighth time they've given up more than 100.

The Rams' four best carries combined for 143 yards. You think the Bears miss injured veteran linebackers D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs a little bit?

"Every week you might have a gap problem, but it's different plays; it's not the same play that's hitting you every time," linebacker James Anderson said. "We've got to be able to adjust better."

Trestman will get plenty of blame for going for it with Bush on fourth-and-1 from the 1-yard line early in the third quarter, with his team down 10. I liked the idea -- going for it, not handing it to the no-yardage back Bush -- but since the play didn't work as Bush got stoned for a 4-yard loss running left, I can say "Bad call! Take the points!"

Seriously, with this bad of a defense I think you go for the touchdown there. Trestman has been consistent with this approach, and it works for me. I like a coach who goes for the win.

"We were going to go for it on fourth down," he said. "It was a little bit of a track meet out there today. I know that three points seemed like a lot. But I'm very confident it was the right thing to do in the long run.

"We were hoping if we didn't make it, our defense would make a stop and we'd be in three-point range again. We had to play for points today because the nature of the game and the pace of the game was frantic today."

The Rams wound up kicking a field goal on the next possession as they took more than four minutes off the clock.

There were four minutes left in the third quarter. Plenty of time for the Bears to pull out another comeback victory.

"It's just like we're right there," Marshall said. "It seems like we're knocking on the door. The door is a little cracked but we still haven't put our foot in. It's encouraging and we'll see if we'll be able to get through that door next week. It's really close."

With five games left, close might not be enough.