After getting pushed into a forming line of NFC also-rans with seven losses, the Bears on Sunday produced the game of their season for a 19-10 victory over the Denver Broncos. In the process, they ended a 12-game road losing streak, dealt a severe blow to the Broncos' playoff hopes and executed in almost exactly the way coaches envisioned prior to the season.
"I feel really happy for our football team; they've certainly played hard, they just haven't been rewarded," Bears coach Dick Jauron said.
The reward Sunday was a 4-7 record, leaving them three back still in the NFC North chase and two in back of Green Bay in the wild card chase, refueling the long-shot talk of finishing 9-7 and in the playoffs.
"Actually, it's not too late," safety Bobby Gray said. "We take it one game at a time and just play well like we did tonight and anything's possible."
There was no debating everything worked the way the Bears had designed it on both sides of the ball against the 6-5 Broncos.
They shrugged off the second-quarter loss of quarterback Chris Chandler to a shoulder injury and their offense still possessed the ball well enough with Kordell Stewart in a ball-control attack to make for a 32:43-27:17 possession advantage over the league's second-best clock-hogging team. Critical to the time edge was the Bears converting all three fourth downs they tried.
"We talked about converting first downs," offensive coordinator John Shoop said. "Our head coach really did a great job, I think, of giving us the opportunity on some fourth downs to keep drives going and to score, in fact, on one of them.
"I thought that those were keys to the game."
Stewart passed for only 47 yards on 7-of-15 in the second half after Chandler had gone 8-of-18 for 79 yards in the first half, and the Bears averaged only 3.2 yards a carry to finish with only 217 net yards, or 148 fewer than the Broncos. Yet their defense gave its best effort of the year, the offense produced a critical 1-yard Stewart fourth-down TD plunge and Paul Edinger kicked four field goals in the thin Denver air to send the Bears home giddy.
"The thing I've always said is this is a team," Stewart said. "The defense played awesome, (Jerry) Azumah ran some great kickoffs back for to put us in great field position; when I had an opportunity to come in the offensive line responded well; the backs, the receivers were having great conversations to try to figure out what we needed to do. Coach Shoop called the game plan that allowed us to go out there and make some plays.
"It was fun, it was great."
The key drive came late in the third quarter. The Bears went on their longest march of the season, moving 55 yards in 15 plays and consuming 8:38. They converted two fourth downs on the drive, the first on a fourth-and-two pass of 4 yards by Stewart to Stanley Pritchett and the last on a huge Dick Jauron gamble that paid off.
Needing a field goal to go ahead 12-10, Jauron went for it on fourth-and-goal from a few inches short of a TD. Stewart dove over and Edinger's PAT gave the Bears a 16-10 edge with 12:45 left in the game.
"I just felt that we were going to need a touchdown, seven points at some point in that football game to win it," Jauron said.
The Bears' defense, which gave up 165 rushing yards on 14 carries to Clinton Portis, including 49-yard and 69-yard runs, then played with the lead in a way they hadn't so far this season.
They forced two straight three-and-outs for the Broncos' offense, and by the time Denver started moving the ball the Bears led 19-10. Edinger, who had missed three of his previous four field goals coming into the game, made a 47-yard kick with 8:50 to go in the game after he had already connected from 33, 23 and 54 yards in the first half.
It was then time for the Bears' defense to tee off.
"It (the nine-point lead) gives (defensive coordinator) Greg (Blache) some leeway," Brian Urlacher said. "You don't want to go out there with a tight (rear end)."
The Bears' defense kept Jake Plummer in the pocket most of the second half after he'd hurt them with some bootleg passes in the first half, including a 1-yard TD toss to wide receiver Rod Smith on their first drive.
Plummer finished with only 176 passing yards on 19-of-35, and his attempt to rally Denver died with 3:52 left when the Broncos lined up for a Jason Elam 40-yard field goal try. Elam, who'd made a 25-yard field goal early in the third quarter for a 10-9 Broncos lead and missed a second-quarter 40-yarder, never got the chance to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter; holder/punter Micah Knorr bobbled the center snap and had to throw up a duck of an incompletion on the ensuring a mad scramble.
The 8-degree wind chill and the 4-7 record couldn't diminish the warmth the Bears felt in the locker room after the final few minutes of the clock ticked away.
"We felt like we could win them all before this one -- coming into the game when we lost to St. Louis," defensive end Alex Brown said. "We felt like we could win them all and get into the playoffs. We still do.
"This is a great win."
But it wasn't as great as it could have been if they had only taken winnable games over Detroit and St. Louis the previous two weeks.