Don't compare these Bears to the rough-and-tumble 1985 NFL champions. They're a lot more like the weekend duffer who's only as good (or bad) as his last shot. After a narrow opening loss to the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens, the Bears put together a string of football birdies, but only their 24-0 shutout of the Cincinnati Bengals was entirely convincing. Otherwise, they were chipping in from off the green or holing a sand shot. Two weeks in a row safety Mike Brown ran in an overtime interception for a game-winning touchdown, each time after the Bears had tied the game with desperation scores in the final moments of regulation. The second of those games, against the Cleveland Browns, was particularly stunning. In a funk most of the afternoon behind popgun-armed Shane Matthews, who'd replaced the injured Jim Miller at quarterback, and with most fans headed to the Soldier Field parking lot (if not already on Lake Shore Drive), the Bears scored on a pass to Marty Booker in the final minute to close to 21-14, recovered an onside kick, and tied the game on a Hail Mary pass batted from rookie receiver David Terrell to running back James Allen. After that win the Bears were 6-1, in first place, and feeling pretty good about themselves, not unlike the 18-handicap golfer who thinks this might be the day he breaks 80 or--dare he even think it? why not?--actually shoots par.
Yet the Bears were just then embarking on a stretch of six straight games in their division, the scheduling equivalent of Augusta National's Amen Corner. Things didn't go well at the outset, as the Bears lost convincingly to the Green Bay Packers, who in the process tied them for first place. The Bears couldn't have been any more humbled if they'd put six straight shots in the water. Though the final was only 20-12, it was a football dunking. The Bears led 6-0 at the end of the first quarter, thanks to a nice opening drive and an interception of quarterback Brett Favre, but after that it was all Pack. A fumble by Daimon Shelton gave Green Bay three points, then Favre, sitting back in the pocket like someone waiting for an el train, found Bill Schroeder breaking into the clear in the corner of the Chicago end zone, beyond the reach of safety Tony Parrish, for a touchdown bomb. A Chicago field goal cut the lead to 10-9, but after the half, Favre marched the Pack down, rolled out, wound up like a baseball pitcher, and threw a strike to Antonio Freeman in the end zone for another touchdown that made it 17-9. The Bears' defensive line could never put any pressure on Favre, and when they finally blitzed him late he found Freeman open on a third and long to set up another field goal. "I swear I will never leave a Bears game early again," read one poster, but that person was no doubt kicking himself for staying through this one. It was over the moment Favre found Schroeder in the first half.
The loss made Sunday's game at Tampa Bay even more critical. As the second half of the season began, would the Bears return to their winning ways or reveal themselves to be hackers who'd played the front nine over their heads? Terrell gave the ball away to the Bucs on the opening play from scrimmage, and though massive defensive tackle Keith Traylor made the Bucs give it right back, the Bucs forced a punt and marched 80 yards for a field goal that drew first blood. The Bucs' defense then pinned down the Bears, and Tampa drove from midfield to another field goal, helped along by the tackle that Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher missed after the Bucs' galloping centaur of a fullback, Mike Alstott, caught a pass in the flat. The Bucs were bringing their safeties up to halt Anthony Thomas and the Bears' running game, just as the Pack had, and with the recovered (so to speak) Miller unable or unwilling to throw downfield, the Bears looked utterly overmatched. It took a 15-yard Tampa Bay penalty on a personal foul to pull the Bears across midfield for the first time.
But no sooner had that happened than Miller hit Booker on a deep post pattern. It was the sort of play that should have been open all along against a run-focused defense. Miller threaded the ball between three Tampa defenders, and Booker caught it and absorbed a punishing hit by the Bucs' John Lynch plus a trailing shot that toppled him into the end zone. This surprising score put the Bears up 7-6, and though Tampa took advantage of the Bears' loose prevent defense and ineffective three-man rush to march for another field goal and a 9-7 lead at the half, it was as if the Bears had finally found the sweet spot on their clubs.
Chicago opened the second half with a nice drive, and after Thomas converted a third and short for a first down, Miller faked a handoff to him on the next play, dropped back deep, and found Booker wide open beyond a flummoxed Ronde Barber on the sideline for an easy touchdown that put the Bears back in front, 14-9. The Chicago defense stiffened, and on the Bears' very next play from scrimmage Miller again tried a play-action pass, arcing a beautiful toss to Booker in stride on another post pattern for yet another touchdown and a 21-9 lead. A gang-tackled Alstott immediately coughed up the ball, and helped by an unnecessary-roughness call on Steve White for spearing Miller head-to-head with his helmet, Chicago advanced to a field goal and a 24-9 lead. The only problem was that there were almost 20 minutes left to play. The Bucs shifted to a hurry-up offense and began to move the ball again.
I was watching the game with my buddy Boom-Boom in a cozy Irish neighborhood bar, and when the Bears took their 24-9 lead into the fourth quarter we asked for the bill. But then Walt Harris was nailed on an abysmal pass-interference call in the end zone--if anything, the Tampa receiver ran into him--and it was as if the Bears had suddenly taken a three-foot divot. On a putt. "This is just fucking crap!" shouted one anxious fan. Alstott finished the drive by cantering into the end zone, and it was 24-16 with 12 and a half minutes to play. All of a sudden, we weren't going anywhere
The Bears' cautious offense did nothing, but the defense stifled the Bucs. Tampa Bay then tried a fake punt. Mark Royals stood back there for seeming minutes, much as Favre had the week before, until special-teams player Carl Powell, who had earlier delivered a punishing hit covering a Bears punt, finally put some pressure on him. Royals completed a five-yard pass and the Bears took over the ball on the Tampa Bay 30. They did nothing too risky, but Paul Edinger booted a 40-yard field goal for what looked like a secure 27-16 lead. Still, there were seven minutes to go.
With the Bears' defense again playing soft, the Bucs marched down, scored, and added a two-point conversion on a toss to Alstott to close to 27-24 with just over two minutes to play. The Bears' offense had crawled into a shell. The Bucs burned some time-outs and got the ball back with two minutes and a second to go--plenty of time for a drive. Finally the Bears added a ferocious blitz to their pass rush, and quarterback Brad Johnson threw the ball into Parrish's waiting arms. Parrish didn't punctuate his interception by running the ball into the end zone the way Brown had in the Bears' last two wins. Even so, it looked like the end of the game.
Hollywood screenwriters thrown out of work after September 11 must have hooked up with the Bears to script their closing moments. New thrills keep erupting just when you think you know how the show's come out. The Bears knelt to kill the clock, but ran out of downs with 18 seconds left. Johnson threw two quick-out sideline patterns, and when R.W. McQuarters was called for smacking a Tampa Bay receiver out of bounds on the second one, costing the Bears an additional 15 yards, Martin Gramatica came on to try a 48-yard field goal. The snap was good, and the ball sailed up with distance to spare. Gramatica had shaved two kicks just inside the goal posts earlier; this one bounced off the upright--no good. The Bears had held on for a 27-24 victory.
That makes them 7-2, and because Green Bay was upset at home Sunday by the Atlanta Falcons, they're back in first place by themselves in the NFC Central. Not coincidentally, the Bears are 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less. I'm not sure they're as good as that record suggests, but they're looking more and more like a team of destiny. It's better to be lucky than good, as any golfer knows.