With six of the Bears' next eight games on the road, it was crucial for them to open the season with a win Sunday over a Buffalo Bills team that compiled a 6-10 record last season.
But costly turnovers, key injuries and an ineffective run defense contributed to a disappointing 23-20 overtime loss, ruining an otherwise perfect sunny afternoon at Soldier Field.
"Going into games like this, you can talk about a lot of different things," said coach Marc Trestman. "But when you have drives and you turn the ball over three times, you wind up minus-two in the plus-minus department, you get all the answers you need.
"Our guys played hard. I think we came out ready to play. But we didn't finish drives, we turned the ball over and we put our defense in tough positions."
The Bears (0-1) compiled 427 total yards and 29 first downs, but committed three turnovers on two Jay Cutler interceptions and a Brandon Marshall fumble that the Bills converted into 13 points.
Chicago's defense generated little pressure on quarterback E.J. Manuel, recording one Willie Young sack while also permitting 193 yards on the ground. The Bears ranked last in the NFL in run defense last season, yielding an average of 161.4 yards per game.
"We didn't play disciplined football for four quarters, and it hurt us," said defensive lineman Lamarr Houston. "We were in a good position to get them stopped, but once again we lacked in the discipline area. We have to do our jobs and know our jobs and just play disciplined football."
Trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Bears stormed back to tie the score 17-17 on Robbie Gould's 41-yard field goal and Cutler's 11-yard touchdown pass to Marshall late in the third quarter.
The rally came after injuries had sidelined receiver Alshon Jeffery (hamstring), guard Matt Slauson (ankle) and center Roberto Garza (ankle) in the first half.
Looking to break the tie midway through the fourth quarter, the Bears marched to the Buffalo 34. But Cutler's ill-advised pass back across the middle intended for tight end Martellus Bennett was intercepted by defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who had drifted back into pass coverage.
"I was just trying to get it inside to Marty," Cutler said. "I should have just thrown it away."
The Bills converted the turnover into Dan Carpenter's 33-yard field goal, taking a 20-17 lead with 4:02 left in the fourth quarter. The Bears forced overtime, however, as Cutler engineered a seven-play, 69-yard drive capped by Gould's 37-yard field goal with :30 remaining.
The Bears won the overtime coin flip but were forced to punt after picking up one first down. The Bills then marched 69 yards on seven plays before winning the game on Carpenter's 27-yard field goal. Fred Jackson set up the kick with a 38-yard run to the Chicago 1.
The Bears had taken a 7-0 lead on their first possession of the game on Cutler's 12-yard TD pass to Bennett over the middle. But their next four drives resulted in two punts and two turnovers.
Cutler was picked off by former Bears defensive back Corey Graham, whose 45-yard return helped set up Manuel's 7-yard TD pass to C.J. Spiller on the next play, giving Buffalo a 17-7 lead.
Cutler completed 34 of 49 passes for 349 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and an 86.2 passer rating. He rebounded from the two picks to help force overtime, but ultimately the Bears were unable to overcome the turnovers and their inability to stop the Bills on the ground.
"They're a great running team, there's no doubt about it," Trestman said. "But at the end of the day if you keep them in the 17- or 20-point range, that should be enough for us to win. If we hang onto the football and take care of it, we would have been in a good position to do that.
"As I told the guys, it's continuity football. It's all about team; all three phases were involved in this game and we've got to accept responsibility for it. That starts with me. We'll go back to work. I think there's a lot of good things. But the bottom line is we're very disappointed we lost this game."