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When the Bears won games last year, there was a sense of impending magic, of Cade McNown throwing passes to Marcus Robinson and the offense scoring at times whenever it needed. That was to be the look of the Millennium Bears.
Sunday the magic left and the Bears were exposed, beaten 14-7 by a New York Giants team that played the way the Bears once did. The Giants found a way to win, scoring on the game's opening possession, then mauling the Bears with six consecutive running plays for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
The Bears, whose lone touchdown came on a 2-yard McNown-to-Eddie Kennison pass late in the second quarter, found a way to lose. Or rather, ways.
Three times McNown overthrew open receivers--Robinson twice, Macey Brooks once. The passes, deep in the Giants' secondary, were the kind that last year always seemed to settle into Robinson's hands. Then, needing a first down on their final possession, Robinson and Dez White caught passes but failed to get out of bounds, the final failure of a passing game that could not take control of the game when needed.
The Bears had two penalties, matching their fewest of the last two seasons, but they were personal fouls that virtually ended possessions in a game that could have turned on any one possession.
The defeat sent the Bears to 0-3 for the third time in the last four seasons and left them the only winless team in the NFC Central. Five teams have started 0-3 and still reached the playoffs, including the 1998 Buffalo Bills with cornerback Thomas Smith and the 1997 Detroit Lions with defensive tackle Mike Wells, who recognized the gravity of the moment.
"Hopefully the morale doesn't go down at all," Wells said. "I don't think it will. But looking around the locker room, guys are getting out of here quick. Hopefully we don't get in this kind of pattern. Losing is a pattern and we know winning is a pattern. To change our pattern, we have to get some wins."
To do that will mean changing an offense that Giants players said is one-dimensional. And it will require the defense to make plays that will allow it to spend less than 38 minutes on the field as it did Sunday. This was a game that could have been far worse for the Bears, since New York missed three field goals and lost a fumble at the Chicago 25, or far different if the Bears had made plays they had in front of them.
"It's something different every time, but the mark of a great football team is being able to make those plays when they're there," McNown said. "There were several times when we had shots at big plays."
Most of those were in the hands of McNown and just beyond those of his receivers. McNown overthrew an open Robinson on the Bears' second possession of the third quarter, then led Brooks too far on the Bears' next possession. He missed Robinson on the Bears' final sequence of plays.
When those plays failed, the Bears had nothing else. They completely abandoned any running game in the second half. Of the Bears' 10 plays in the third quarter, nine were pass plays.
The Bears had three possessions in the third quarter and ran only those 10 plays, keeping the ball a total of 3:39. The Giants had the ball a total of seven minutes on their two possessions, and scored once.
Not needing to worry about fake handoffs, New York sacked McNown on plays following overthrown passes to Brooks and Robinson.
"I try to get it out there and give them a chance to run under it," McNown said. "The receivers are running a lot of deep routes so they could be tired and I just need to take that into account and hold the ball up a little bit more. I didn't feel at any time when I threw it that I was going to be long. I thought just about all those were pretty good throws."
Not good enough. "The only thing I have to say is I have to run a little bit faster," Robinson said. "I have to just look at me. If [McNown] thought they were good balls, they were good balls. I just have to run a little bit faster and catch them and make those plays."
The Bears' problem, as it has been in the past, was that when those plays didn't work, they had nothing else. And even when something did work on offense, the Bears occasionally offset it with stupid plays.
Curtis Enis negated a 7-yard first-down run by James Allen in the second quarter with a late hit on cornerback Emmanuel McDaniel to kill one drive.
Then Kennison responded to a shove by Dave Thomas by head-butting the Giants cornerback, turning a first-down run by McNown to near midfield into a first-and-25 from which the Bears never recovered.
"It was a pivotal moment," said coach Dick Jauron. "We gave them 15 yards and made it first-and-25, which is real hard to pick up. We had two penalties in the game, they were both personal fouls and they both hurt us."
The Bears indeed hurt themselves, with moments like those, the overthrown passes or not putting themselves in positions to win. The offense ran the ball only 16 times, making them 0-5 over the last two seasons when they do not attempt at least 20 rushes.
The Giants rushed for 172 yards to the Bears' 48, and passed for 235 to the Bears' 174. "It's tough to win in the NFL and that's very evident to us," Wells said. "We just have to get over that little hump. We know good things are starting to happen. It's just a matter of doing the little things that are going to make us a winning team. But I know eventually you're going to get tired of hearing that."