MINNEAPOLIS - First, Jay Cutler. Then, Matt Forte. Finally, Brian Urlacher.
The Chicago Bears stopped their five-game losing streak at the end of this what-could-have-been season, but even this victory was plenty painful.
Charles Tillman's interception return in the second quarter gave the Bears the lead for good in a 17-13 victory over the Vikings on Sunday despite 3½ of Minnesota's seven sacks by Jared Allen and a late injury to Urlacher, the soul of Chicago's defense.
"It just breaks my heart to see. He is the Chicago Bears," quarterback Josh McCown said. "That's the name you think about, so to see that guy down on the turf is a sick feeling."
Allen finished the season with 22 sacks, behind Michael Strahan's mark of 22½ for the New York Giants in 2001. Joe Webb relieved Christian Ponder at quarterback for the Vikings (3-13) for the third time in the last month, but the wild-scrambling Webb wasn't able to keep the Vikings from matching their worst record in franchise history, set first in 1984.
"I was really hoping for one more one-on-one, one more third-and-9," Allen said.
The Vikings claimed the third pick in next year's draft after going 0-6 in the NFC North, the first time in their 51 years they've failed to win a division game.
Coach Lovie Smith said Urlacher sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, which bent awkwardly in the end zone while he helped break up a pass with 5:15 left. He'll have ample time to recover this winter with the Bears (8-8) missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but that wasn't a good way to finish for a guy who'll turn 34 before next season. Urlacher was able to walk off the field without assistance, but he was in enough pain initially that he briefly covered his face with his hand.
The last month has been hard to watch for all of the Bears and their fans, following Cutler's broken right thumb. They were 7-3 with the postseason well within reach until Cutler was sidelined. Forte, their Pro Bowl running back, sprained his right knee two weeks later, and the Bears stumbled into this meaningless matchup at Minnesota with last season's trip to the NFC championship game a distant memory.
"It's not a whole lot of fun finishing your season knowing that, but we're a good football team and we're going to try and keep as many of our coaches and players together as possible," Smith said. "We don't want to tear this team down and start over or anything like that. This is a good football team, and we're going to win a lot of games with this core remaining the same."
Smith acknowledged he's concerned about Urlacher but also noted his recuperative history.
"He heals a little bit quicker than most people, so he should be OK," Smith said.
Despite Allen being in his face all day, blowing by left tackle J'Marcus Webb often until the tight ends started to help. McCown finished 15 for 25 for 160 yards and a second-quarter touchdown pass to Roy Williams with one interception. Though the season was already lost, McCown fared far better than Cutler's first fill-in, Caleb Hanie, after being signed off the street to take his first NFL snaps in two years.
"What a great group, and it's just an honor to play for the coaches and the guys that are on the field today," McCown said.
The Bears have won five straight in this series, their longest streak against the Vikings since winning six in a row from 1983-86.
"The last time I looked at our record we were 7-3, and from that moment on everything came tumbling down like a small snowball into a huge snowman," said receiver-returner Devin Hester, who had another quiet game.
Though the circumstances were so much different on this day, the Vikings came full circle with another loss to McCown. He filled in for the Arizona Cardinals in the 2003 season finale and knocked Minnesota out of a playoff spot with a stunning heave into the end zone on the final snap.
The Vikings got the ball back with no timeouts at their own 6-yard line and 1:51 left, but D.J. Moore's interception -- the second of the game by Webb -- at the Chicago 29 was the clincher.
Ponder went 4 for 10 for 28 yards before aggravating a hip pointer he suffered a month ago. Webb, who rallied the Vikings to victory last week at Washington and brought them within 1 yard of a win at Detroit on Dec. 11, went 17 for 32 for 200 yards. He netted only 2 yards on four rushes.
"They did a real good job of being gap smart and not letting him escape," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
The Vikings had their share of gaffes familiar to this at-times-woeful season. Most notable was Ponder's 13th interception, a poorly thrown pass behind Toby Gerhart that bounced off the running back's hands and into the arms of Tillman for an untouched 22-yard return. That was the third pick six in the last five games against Ponder, the first-round draft pick who took over as the starter for the seventh game of the season.
Webb took a 10-yard loss on one of his scrambles instead of throwing the ball away on third-and-4 at the 20, moving Ryan Longwell's field goal attempt back to 48 yards. Julius Peppers blocked, it preserving a 14-10 lead. Longwell made a pair of 26-yarders in the first half, but a high snap and a dropped hold led to another botched field goal in the second half.