CHICAGO – Win by the pass to Terrell Owens in overtime. Lose by the pass to Terrell Owens in overtime. Win by the madcap rally from way behind, lose by the madcap rally from way behind.
Rally from a 14-point deficit to win 37-31 in overtime in Atlanta one week, allow the Chicago Bears to rally from a 19-point deficit for a stunning 37-31 overtime victory two weeks later.
That's how the San Francisco 49ers spent their latest crazy Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, and it was a killer. It also is the difference between the 49ers riding high in the NFL today with a 5-1 record and four-game winning streak, and San Francisco instead slipping back to 4-2 and having to recover from a game the Niners led 28-9 midway through the third period and 31-16 with seven minutes, 47 seconds remaining in the contest.
"To lose a game like that, this is a shock," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said. Or, to put it in the words of Niners offensive guard Ray Brown, "This was a game we were supposed to win. We're supposed to close that game out. We have to win that game."
But they didn't. After dominating the action through three quarters, and seemingly securing a victory that would by most estimations lift them back into the NFL elite after a two-year hiatus, the Niners instead allowed the Bears to score the final 21 points of the game in a span of just 4:24.
And, even after the Niners won the overtime coin toss to apparently stop the bleeding of a 15-point Chicago flurry in the final four minutes that forced the extra period, it only got worse. Worse, as in game over. Playing in their second consecutive overtime game and third in six games this season, the Niners won the coin toss just as they had in two previous overtime games this year against Atlanta.
But the outcome was much different this time after the Niners got the ball. On the first play from scrimmage in the extra period, quarterback Jeff Garcia dropped back and fired a pass to Terrell Owens, who had burned the Bears for an NFL-record 20 receptions when these teams met in December of last season. This time, the Bears burned back, as the ball bounced off the hands of Owens, who was headed for big yardage had he held on to it.
"The ball was in the air and it just fell into my hands," Chicago safety Mike Brown said. "Then, it was just trying to get into the end zone." Brown got there, all right. He plucked the ball from the sky, weaved toward the right sideline, then turned the corner into the end zone to complete a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave the Bears the victory and ended the game just 16 seconds into the extra period – setting a new NFL record for the quickest overtime game in league history.
The Niners, who seemingly had this one in the bag, could do nothing but watch as the bounces didn't go their way when it counted this time. "That's a play that, if we execute cleanly, and (Owens) makes a move on the safety, he might make it all the way," Garcia said. "Unfortunately, we all saw what happened. He wasn't able to corral it in, and Mike Brown was there to pick up the bobbled ball and make a play on it. I couldn't believe it."
There was a lot that was hard to believe about this loss, as the Niners apparently were in complete control after Zack Bronson's team-record 97-yard interception return for a touchdown gave San Francisco a 28-9 lead with 8:18 remaining in the third quarter. That big play came five minutes after the Niners had hit the Bears with a 60-yard touchdown pass from Garcia to Garrison Hearst on the third play of the second half to go ahead 21-9.
And those big San Francisco plays came well after the Niners had apparently set the tone of the game midway through the first period, when defensive tackle Bryant Young timed a snap cadence perfectly and burst through the line to hit Chicago starting quarterback Jim Miller, who fumbled the ball into the backfield. Niners linebacker Julian Peterson picked up the loose ball and, as he stumbled forward, he received a bit of assistance from cornerback Jason Webster to stay upright before returning it 26 yards for a touchdown. Peterson dunked the ball over the crossbar in exhilaration and, when Chicago was forced to punt on the ensuing series, the Niners drove 85 yards for a touchdown to go ahead 14-0. But then the little things started happening against the Niners. Those little things added up by the end of the game.
First, punter Jason Baker let a snap slip through his hands near the goal line with just 1:54 remaining before halftime. The ball went through the end zone for a safety, and the Bears responded by taking the ensuing kick and driving 55 yards for a touchdown. Despite being virtually dominated in the first half, the Bears were back within 14-9 at halftime. During that late touchdown drive, Webster also went down with a slight concussion that would keep him out the rest of the game. That would prove consequential later as Webster's backup, Anthony Parker, also was lost with a dislocated shoulder. The 49ers were forced to play more conservatively in the secondary late in the game with third-stringer George McCullough in at cornerback.
"When you lose a couple of corners, you've got to call the game a little differently than if all your starters were available," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "But that certainly isn't going to be the reason we say we lost the game. "I think what you're seeing in the National Football League are a lot of teams that are capable of winning on any given day, teams that are equally matched, and it's going to come down to a play here or there or an injury here or there, the attitude of the team, the momentum, that sort of thing. It came down to a few close plays, a touchdown play, a two-point play, both reviewable. You know, it's a game of inches, and that's how this season is going."
The Niners had the injuries. The Bears had the attitude and the momentum. And the reviewable plays – both of them crucial to the outcome – both went against the Niners. Trailing 31-16, the Bears went on a 66-yard drive that culminated in David Terrell's 13-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Shane Matthews, who entered when Miller was injured in the first half. Terrell then caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Matthews with 26 seconds remaining, a play that was reviewed after Terrell barely got both feet down inside the end zone as he was being forced out of bounds by safety Lance Schulters.
The ensuing two-point conversion – which the Bears needed to extend the game to overtime – was even closer. Anthony Thomas, who rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown, vaulted into the end zone after his knee hit near the 1-yard line. After a review, referees ruled the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line before Thomas' knee had touched. Overtime.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, after what everybody saw happen there. "It's heartbreak," Garcia said.