GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Maybe the worst part about Christmas night for the Bears was that, for a while there, they felt pretty good about it.
Down 7-3 in the second quarter and 14-10 in the third, things were actually looking hopeful. Or as hopeful as a 7-7 season with virtually no hope for the postseason can look.
After all, their third- and fourth-string running backs had combined for 127 yards on 24 carries by halftime. Their third-string quarterback was carrying a 90-plus quarterback rating in the second quarter and certainly wasn't doing anything to embarrass them. They even had some serious momentum going in the first half with the offense controlling the ball and the defense bearing down for three straight three-and-outs.
When left guard Edwin Williams scooped up a fumble at the goal line for a touchdown in the third quarter, a Chicago sports fan still giddy from a Chicago Bulls' comeback victory over the Los Angeles Lakers may have even allowed himself a moment where a Chicago Bears' upset over the Green Bay Packers seemed, well, possible.
But just like the abrupt turn of events that converted a 7-3 Bears season to 7-8, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers flicked aside their old rival aside like little more than an annoying little brother. And all that hope suddenly felt more pathetic than anything else as Green Bay secured home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs while officially eliminating the Bears from postseason consideration with a convincing 35-21 victory.
While thoughts turn now to the future, the sting of this Bears season after what amounted to a season-ending thumb injury to Jay Cutler six weeks ago, will surely linger, easily superseding the bite of losing to the Packers for the fourth time this calendar year.
If there was any doubt, there was this response by Brian Urlacher when asked for reasons for optimism for next season: "Yeah," said the Bears middle linebacker, unable to mask his disappointment. "The season will be over next week. That's good."
Urlacher was unhappy with a defensive effort that ultimately allowed Rodgers to be the NFL's elite quarterback that he is, as Rodgers completed 21 of 29 passes for 283 yards and a career-high five touchdowns for a whopping 142.7 passer rating.
But maybe just as glaring was the fact that even Rodgers' backups at receiver, like James Jones, who replaced Greg Jennings and caught a career-high two touchdowns Sunday night, was better than any target a Bears quarterback has had this season.
On the positive side, the Bears' Josh McCown looked good enough (19-of-28 for 242 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions) to merit consideration for a backup role next season. But if McCown had proven unworthy of continuing or been injured Sunday, the Bears would have inexplicably gone back to Caleb Hanie, a player with absolutely no shot of being on their roster next season while rookie Nathan Enderle was inactive, not even good enough to dress.
It is just one of the criticisms a Bears' hierarchy should have to answer to despite the bad luck of losing Cutler and starting running back Matt Forte in a two-week span. This was the first time the Bears have lost five straight games under Lovie Smith, and despite the fact that they now have a franchise quarterback to build around, they also proved that is no guarantee for even modest success with so many other glaring holes.
While Kahlil Bell, in just his second NFL start, showed with 121 yards rushing on 23 carries that he is just as suitable a backup to Forte as Marion Barber, and probably more so given Barber's recent gaffes, the Bears' secondary looked just as shaky and unsettled as ever.
Free safety Major Wright made Craig Steltz even more vulnerable than he had to be on Rodgers' back-breaking 55-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson in the third quarter, while cornerback Zack Bowman, who replaced Tim Jennings, was victimized on Jones' 7-yard scoring slant for one later in the quarter.
"The last five weeks we haven't played well enough to win and we lost all five games," Urlacher said. "I'm not happy about where we're at, nobody on this team is, our coaches aren't happy, but that's what we've got."
Even offensively, as good as the Bears looked relative to a horrendous last four weeks, it wasn't close to good enough against a banged-up Packers' defense that, among others, was missing run-stuffer Ryan Pickett.
"It's encouraging the amount of yards our offense put up, but yards without points doesn't mean anything," Bell said. "It was just disappointing. We thought we had a good game plan but we just fell short. The better team won."
The better team made the Bears look outclassed despite offensive coordinator Mike Martz's restrained 42 run plays to 28 passes. The Packers had no penalties, no turnovers and gave their fans no real reason to think they would not eventually dominate, despite the relatively competitive first half.
"It means a lot," Rodgers said of the Packers' home-field advantage. "That was our goal. We couldn't accomplish it last week [in their only loss of the season, against Kansas City], but it was good to bounce back this week and play better and know that the Super Bowl run has to go through Green Bay."
As was the case all night Sunday, he made it sound easy.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.