DETROIT (AP) — The Chicago locker room was emptying out, and the Bears could no longer do anything but hope.
Then Minnesota scored an early touchdown against Green Bay up on a TV screen, and there were a couple quiet groans.
“It’s just aggravating to have to wait and see what has to go down,” running back Matt Forte said. “We took care of our part, so that’s all we can bank on right now.”
Chicago had kept its playoff hopes alive — but only momentarily. The Bears beat the Detroit Lions 26-24 on Sunday, then were eliminated from postseason contention when the Vikings won 37-34 to earn the final NFC wild card.
The Bears (10-6) needed a Minnesota loss to reach the playoffs. Instead, they became only the second club since the postseason expanded to 12 teams to miss out after a 7-1 start, according to STATS. The other was Washington in 1996.
“Of course, I think we’re moving in the right direction,” coach Lovie Smith said in an interview with Chicago’s WFLD-TV after Minnesota’s victory. “A 10-6 season normally gets you in and we just didn’t do enough.”
The Lions (4-12) lost their last eight games and turned the ball over four times in the finale. Calvin Johnson fell short in his attempt to become the first player with 2,000 yards receiving in a season.
Minnesota played Green Bay as part of the later session of Sunday afternoon games, so the Bears were leaving the stadium well before that game ended.
It went down to the wire, and the Bears didn’t get the help they needed from the rival Packers. That kept Chicago out of the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
Chicago was almost knocked out of the playoff picture by the Lions. Detroit trailed 20-3 late in the first half but pulled within two in the fourth quarter and had the ball at its own 9-yard line before a three-and-out forced a punt.
The Bears ran out the last 3:40, with Cutler’s 19-yard run on third down keeping the drive going. The Chicago quarterback threw for 257 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson, who broke Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 yards receiving the previous weekend, finished at 1,964 after catching five passes for 72 yards.
“Had a good year, but there’s a lot of things that could have been done better,” Johnson said. “There’s always room to get better.”
Detroit’s Matthew Stafford went 24 of 42 for 272 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He finished the season with an NFL-record 727 pass attempts, surpassing Drew Bledsoe’s mark of 691 from 1994.
Stafford fell short of a second consecutive 5,000-yard season, finishing at 4,967 through the air.
It was a surprising fall for the Lions, who made the playoffs last season for the first time in a dozen years. Coach Jim Schwartz wouldn’t address speculation about his job status.
“The thing I’m most concerned with is getting this team back to where we all want it to be,” he said. “I’m not proud at all of our record.”
The Lions scored two straight touchdowns to make it 20-17 in the third quarter, but Chicago, which came into the game with a league-high 40 takeaways, forced another key turnover.
Stafford’s fumble gave the Bears the ball at the Detroit 13. It was the fourth time the Bears started a drive inside the Detroit 25, and they ended up kicking a field goal.
Olindo Mare added another field goal, a 20-yarder with 10:47 left in the fourth, to make it 26-17. Stafford’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Brian Robiskie pulled Detroit closer, but it wasn’t enough.
After the Lions opened the scoring with a field goal in the first, Chicago struck back when Cutler swung a pass out to Earl Bennett, who made the catch behind the line of scrimmage, got a block and outran the defense for a surprisingly easy 60-yard touchdown.
Joique Bell fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, and the Bears kicked a field goal. In the second quarter, Stafford fumbled deep in his own territory. Julius Peppers recovered for Chicago, and his short return gave the Bears the ball at the 10.
Forte scored on a 1-yard run to make it 17-3.
The Lions weren’t done giving the ball away. Tim Jennings picked off Stafford’s overthrown pass, and his 31-yard return to the Detroit 23 set up another field goal.
Stafford’s 25-yard scoring pass to Kris Durham with 12 seconds left in the half made it 20-10, and he threw a 10-yarder in the third to Will Heller.