CHICAGO--The Chicago Bears head into the playoffs with a new "Fridge," and the Jaguars turn into the offseason with a coach who is about to negotiate a contract extension.
That's the way the regular season ended for both teams in Soldier Field Sunday, as the Bears' 33-13 win clinched the team's first NFC Central Division title since 1990, and gave the Jaguars their worst record, 6-10, since their inaugural season.
A game that was highlighted by portly defensive tackle Keith Traylor's comical, 67-yard interception return produced the Jaguars' largest margin of defeat this season. The Jaguars may not include this game among those they "should've won."
Traylor waddled down the sideline after tipping and intercepting a Mark Brunell screen pass. At one point, Traylor looked for a teammate to whom he could lateral the ball. At another point in his jaunt, it appeared as though he wanted to stop and rest.
In 1985, the Bears won the Super Bowl with a jolly defensive tackle named William "Refrigerator" Perry, who reached acclaim as a short-yardage running back. Traylor seemed to prime the Bears for a Super Bowl run this winter by doing a Perry imitation. Traylor's return produced as much laughter as it did cheers.
But forgive the Jaguars if they weren't amused. This was a painful finale to the season, two days after team owner Wayne Weaver announced he would attempt to negotiate a contract extension with his coach, Tom Coughlin, in the days following the end of the season.
"I thank Wayne for the vote of confidence, and we've got a lot of work to do," Coughlin said, referring to the contract extension and a certain winter of salary cap and roster repair.
Weaver made his "contract extension" announcement shortly after Steve Spurrier announced his resignation from the University of Florida on Friday, Jan. 4. Weaver had already decided to seek an extension with Coughlin, but Spurrier's resignation was clearly the impetus to Weaver's announcement. He wanted to quickly douse rumors Coughlin would be fired and replaced by Spurrier.
Spurrier fans will nonetheless criticize Weaver's decision to retain Coughlin. The Jaguars coach will have to endure more than his fair share of criticism, from fans who will claim the Jaguars could've hired Spurrier.
"Will it make it tough for him. He won't let it bother him. That's good. So what if he hears it? He's the man and nobody can do anything about it because Weaver said so," Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith said.
"We're going to come back next year and we're going to have a good football team," Smith added.
That's going to be a difficult task. The loss to the Bears made that obvious, if it wasn't previously.
Coughlin's "contract extension" is believed to be Weaver's way of announcing the roster will be gutted this winter. The Jaguars will head into a hard rebuilding phase that will probably require two seasons of effort. Coughlin ended this season with two years remaining on his contract. An extension would give him the security he needs to begin the rebuilding process.
"I'm frustrated. I didn't like the way we finished," Coughlin said in his postgame remarks Sunday. "It accentuates the work we have to do in the offseason."
Those Jaguars players whose release would provide the team with salary cap relief expect Sunday's game to have been their last with the Jaguars.
"It's probably the closest group we've had. I'm going to miss those guys because I know there are some guys in that locker room who won't be back," Brunell said. "I don't know who stays, who goes. Whoever's there in July, those are the guys we'll go with. It's not that we won't have talent, it's just that those guys will be so young."
Who are the candidates to be released? Hardy Nickerson, Keenan McCardell, Kyle Brady, Aaron Beasley, Seth Payne and Gary Walker are possibilities. The fact of the matter is the Jaguars' salary cap situation is so bad that any player who offers a savings is a legitimate candidate to be released.
"There's no question I'd love to have Keenan McCardell, but is that a business decision?" Brunell asked.
Even Brunell could be a candidate, but he campaigned to stay. "I love the city of Jacksonville. I think we'll build it back up. I'm going to stay optimistic and I'm going to keep believing," he said.
Brunell suffered his worst performance of the season against the Bears. He was intercepted three times, which produced a season-low, 51,7 passer rating.
"The start of the third quarter was indicative of the game. We got a turnover, turned it back over to them and they went down and scored," Coughlin said, referring to Traylor's interception, which resulted in a 20-0 Bears lead.
It was one of two possible turning-point plays in the game. The other occurred near the end of the first half, with the Bears facing a fourth-and-eight play at the Jaguars 28-yard line.
Quarterback Jim Miller's 17-yard pass completion to Marty Booker led to a two-yard, Leon Johnson touchdown run that staked the Bears to a 10-0 lead.
Rookie running back Anthony Thomas was the game's star, rushing for 160 yards and a touchdown. He became only the second running back this season to rush for 100 yards against the Jaguars.
"A lot of guys don't know what's going to happen, including me. But I've been around and I'm not going to worry about it. It's like stocks; if you look at them every day, it's going to drive you nuts. I'd like to be here, but I can't control it so why worry about it?" guard Zach Wiegert said.
"We're going to be in a new division next (season), so let's find out how that's going to play out. It's going to be a big hurdle to deal with the salary cap," Smith said.
It's time to get on with it.