This season has been a frustrating one from start to finish. Though a 9-7 record is really about what they deserve, the record doesn't quite tell the whole story. They were a mediocre team, but they didn't play consistently mediocre - they played inconsistently: sometimes they looked great and sometimes they looked worse than the Lions.
There were times when the offense looked like it could move the ball at will, especially at the beginning of the season when people were noting that it was the defense that let the Bears down in numerous contests, while the offense was able to put up big numbers. There were other times, whole games even, where the Bears looked like they couldn't move the ball two feet.
On the defensive end, the Bears occasionally looked dominant, stuffing the run, knocking down passes, and generally disrupting other teams' offensive game plan. But all too often a couple of great plays would be followed by the opposing team completing a big 3rd and long and staying on the field. There were mental breakdowns on defense, there were way too many cases of missed tackles (the down side of going for the strip every time), and there were long stretches where the pass rush was non-existent. There's a reason the Bears blitzed more than anyone in the league - the front 4 didn't get pressure. In turn, all the blitzing created big soft open spaces in the zones where linebackers and safeties would usually be, allowing easy completions.
Because of these weaknesses the Bears coaches were often left having to guess where they ought to marshal their resources, and thus the inconsistency: when they guessed right they would look great, but when they guessed wrong, or when the blitz was picked up, they would get beat for big plays.
Thus the season progressed maddeningly, with great plays and great games interspersed with miserable ones. Ultimately, the source of this wild variation seems to me to be the mediocre talent on the field, and the coaching staff's attempts to utilize that talent successfully - when it worked, it worked well - it just didn't work enough.
I have been internally critical of Lovie Smith for a lot of things he's done over the course of the season. In particular I have thought that he has not been a good in-game manager. But I think I might have been wrong about that. I think he's done the best he could with the talent on the field, which has been middling at best. (I do think he has been very bad at identifying which talent ought to be on the field, though).
The Bears were in a lot of close games throughout the season, indicative of the fact that they were in that big NFL muddle of mid-quality teams. In the NFL you typically have a few teams that are really, really good, a few teams that are really, really bad, and then a whole bunch of remaining teams that are mediocre. For those teams, luck has a lot to do with whether they end up anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6. Those whose true talent is 8-8 and get the lucky bounces to get in at 10-6 are usually wiped in the first round of the playoffs. So many of the Bears games turned on one or two key, critical, plays, but really good teams don't need those plays - they don't need the challenge to go their way, or the fumble to bounce their way, or the miracle field goal block, because they are already up 15 points with a couple minutes to go.
In some ways, the ending to the season was poetic. Over the last two weeks the Bears had unbelievable luck. So many improbable things had to happen for them to get the wild-card, and amazingly, every single one did. This included a host of miserable teams beating good teams with the playoffs on the line. Yet the Bears were unable to make sure that they beat the teams they needed to beat. In the Green Bay game they got a lucky block, a lucky coin toss, and a win. In the Houston game, a challenge on a fumble that should have gone their way (the Slaton fumble - there was no indisputable evidence that he had possession) didn't, and the onside kick didn't bounce their way, and that was that. A good team would not have been in a situation where those plays would have mattered.
Ultimately, the Bears ended up exactly where they belonged: 9-7 and out of the playoffs. As documented throughout this site, the Bears have a lot of work to do in the offseason - at least they can get working on that now without fooling themselves into thinking that a few lucky bounces indicate that they are a really good team.