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In a season of important steps, the Bears took perhaps their biggest one yet.
They first learned to believe in themselves. Then they learned to believe they really could win. Next they learned how to put teams away when they have the chance, to play their best and crush them.
Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers they learned how to win when they were playing less than their best, against a good team, when they had lost their starting quarterback, had fallen behind 28-9 and generally stunk, by their own description.
"It's just kind of fitting because we gave them 14 points [on turnovers], and guys were just really irritated by that," said quarterback Jim Miller, who left the game with a hip pointer in the second quarter. "To come back and show our character . . . but that's the thing that good teams do. Good teams overcome bad things that happen, and that shows the dedication of this team and how good this team can be because we can overcome any of our own faults. That's the sign of a good football team, and we are a good football team."
A season of improbabilities added one more before a Soldier Field crowd of 63,265. The Bears (5-1) scored twice on passes to rookie wide receiver David Terrell in the final 4 minutes 8 seconds, tied the score 31-31 with a two-point conversion run by fellow rookie running back Anthony Thomas, then won their fifth straight game when safety Mike Brown intercepted a pass on the first play of overtime and ran 33 yards for the quickest score in NFL overtime history (16 seconds) and a 37-31 victory.
"You know, it's funny," said coach Dick Jauron. "You get really greedy. When Mike caught the ball, you're pretty happy. But then you want him to score. And then he gets to the 20 and you're not thinking field goal, you're thinking, `Don't make us kick the field goal.' That's all I could think. I kept saying, `Score! Get in the end zone!'"
The victory left them a half-game behind the St. Louis Rams (6-1) for the best record in the NFC. If the playoffs (remember those?) started today, the Bears would have home-field advantage against everyone except the Rams. They can pull even next Sunday with a win over the Cleveland Browns (4-2) while the Rams are idle.
To reach this point, the Bears had to overcome not only the 49ers (4-2) but also themselves. They spotted San Francisco a touchdown when linebacker Julian Peterson picked up a Miller fumble and ran 26 yards for a touchdown on the Bears' second possession. They helped the 49ers go up 28-9 when Shane Matthews, who completed 25-of-31 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns in relief of Miller, had a pass to tight end Fred Baxter intercepted by safety Zack Bronson and returned 97 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter.
But what followed was the Bears' biggest comeback since they came from 20 points behind to defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 25, 1987. Thomas, who fortified his standing as the featured back in the Bears' offense with 127 yards in 27 carries, ran 19 yards for a score on the Bears' first possession after the interception return to start the climb back from the abyss.
After Jose Cortez kicked a 40-yard field goal to give the 49ers a 31-16 lead, Matthews directed drives of 66 and 67 yards on consecutive possessions that culminated in touchdown passes of 13 and 4 yards to Terrell, followed by Thomas' plunge in for the tying conversion. Sandwiched between those two scores was a crucial three-and-out stop by a Bears defense that yielded the most yards it has all season (350) and most points (17) since Week 1 at Baltimore.
"I think this was a key victory for us," said defensive tackle Keith Traylor, who was part of similar comebacks on two Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos teams. "Some games you're not going to play your best and you've just got to find a way to do it."
The win ended a string of five straight 49ers wins over the Bears dating back to the 1988 postseason. It was the first time the Bears have won five straight since 1991; the last time they won six in a row was 1986, the post-Super Bowl season in which they finished 14-2.
They allowed the 49ers 11 first downs and 116 passing yards in the first quarter, then nine and 153, respectively, the rest of the game. The Bears managed only 28 yards of total offense in the first quarter, then finished with 364. Bad starts once were followed by bad finishes. Not this year, apparently.
"We just came through," said linebacker Brian Urlacher, who collected his team-leading second interception of the season. "Shane did a great job coming off the bench. That was huge of him to step in like he did. It's just good to know we're not out of any game. We were down 28-9 and just kept playing hard and things went our way. We are a pretty opportunistic team."