Bedeviled most of the afternoon by Vincent Jackson, who finished with 165 yards and a touchdown catch, Charles Tillman still found a way here on Sunday afternoon to quietly win the war despite losing the one-on-one battle of statistics to the impressive San Diego wide receiver.
Only the resourceful Chicago Bears' standout cornerback, touted by many of his teammates last week as deserving of his first career Pro Bowl berth, claimed the victory in a most unusual way. The ninth-year veteran, torched by Jackson in single coverage on at least four of the wide receiver's seven catches, including a 47-yarder that set up a five-yard touchdown grab to tie the game in the third quarter, got the better of his adversary on a run, not a pass.
With the Bears having just regained the third-quarter lead at 24-17 on Jay Cutler's one-yard quarterback sneak, Tillman disengaged himself from a Jackson downfield block as San Diego tailback Ryan Mathews bounced a designed off-tackle play to the right outside.
Tillman reached just past Jackson, stripped the ball from Mathews and recovered his own forced fumble. Two plays later, Cutler threw 24 yards to wide receiver Johnny Knox for a touchdown and a 31-17 lead.
There were a lot of heroes singled out by coach Lovie Smith in the Bears' 31-20 victory, Chicago's fifth-straight win, but Tillman earned special praise. And, it was apparent from some of the remarks in the winner's locker room, deservedly so.
"I don't think anyone knocks the ball loose like we do," said strong safety Major Wright, who choked off a Chargers' drive with an end zone interception, one of the Bears' two pickoffs of struggling San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers.
"And I don't know if anyone in the league goes after the ball like (Tillman) does. If the ball can be gotten, he's going to get it."
Indeed, the strip and recovery, which allowed Chicago to gain some breathing room with a second touchdown in 54 seconds, was the 37th takeaway of Tillman's career. The former Louisiana-Lafayette star, a second-round pick in 2003, has authored 28 interceptions and now nine fumble recoveries. He also has 27 forced fumbles for his career, an extraordinary number for a cornerback.
The victory moved the surging Bears, who also had a five-game winning streak last season, to 7-3. The Chargers dropped to 4-6.
Said Tillman, 30, of the key play: "I just stuck my hand in and went for the ball. I guess I got lucky. Sometimes, you know, you roll the dice, and it comes up a seven."
For the Chargers, well, they keep shooting craps in a season when many of the NFL pundits made them a chic preseason Super Bowl favorite. The loss marked a fifth straight defeat for San Diego, the club's first five-game skid since 2003, and a bitter setback, given that a makeshift offensive line played well enough to win. In recent years a slow-starter, the Chargers actually won four of their first five outings in 2011, and seemed to be in control of the AFC West.
They lost for a third straight time this month, after having dropped only seven games total after Nov. 1 in the previous five seasons.
Not since '03 has San Diego lost more than three games in a year after Nov. 1.
"Just some things here and there keep biting us," said Jackson. "It really seems to be something different every week."
On the flip side, the Bears, who play with precious little margin for error, given their style, have to do the "little things" to win, and seem to keep doing them. Once again Sunday, they were terrific on special teams, with Knox and Devin Hester combining for 181 return yards, although the latter had two long runbacks nullified by flags. Despite playing without two offensive line starters who went on injured reserve last week, and scrambling much of the day, Cutler threw for 286 yards and a couple of scores, and wasn't sacked. His only interception of the afternoon came when Knox slipped on a comeback route, but Cutler made a touchdown-saving tackle on San Diego cornerback Antoine Cason. The Bears' offense at one point converted seven straight third-down attempts and gained 379 yards.
But Chicago wins, despite a third straight outing with 30 or more points, by "grinding it out," defensive end Julius Peppers pointed out. "I mean, if we don't get the takeaways, we're 50-50 to win anything," Peppers said.
And the takeaways have not only been a hallmark of Tillman's career, but for the defense in general during Smith's stewardship.
"I honestly believe," Tillman said, "that we practice stripping the ball more than any team in the league. Sometimes, you're just in a situation where you react, shoot out a hand, or flick it out, and there it is. Sometimes you're beaten, and it's what you have to do. You just don't have a choice. But you keep trying."
Given his rather difficult day in coverage, and the fact he was almost engulfed by the massive Jackson on Mathews' run, it might have been easy for Tillman to submit to the circumstances. Chances are that Mathews - who had fumbled on the Chargers' first possession, with his bobble recovered by left tackle Brandyn Dombrokwski, and who lost five fumbles in 2010 as a rookie -- would have run for considerably more yards down the right sideline.
"But (Tillman) turned it around and changed the tone of the game," weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs said. "Just a huge play."
Actually, it shouldn't have been surprising that the Bears were so opportunistic.
Since Smith became the Chicago coach in 2003, the Bears have ranked among the top seven defenses in the NFL in fumbles forced in each of the previous five years. They were second in three of those seasons. In terms of fumbles recovered, Chicago was in the top five four times in the last five years, led the NFL in 2006 and tied for the league lead in 2009.
Clearly, Tillman has bought in big-time to the takeaway philosophy espoused by Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
"I used to be amazed (by Tillman's proclivity for takeaways)," Smith said. "But now, we expect it quite a bit. It's just a part of what he is as a football player."
And, obviously, a part of what the Chicago Bears are as a team.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.