The Bears had a statement to make Sunday and the New York Jets were the ones who had to pay for it, possibly with their playoff hopes.
The Jets (7-7) came to Champaign expecting a walkover similar to the one the Miami Dolphins enjoyed Monday night against the Bears. Instead they left with a 20-13 defeat at the hands of a team determined to prove that its record is deceptive.
"I just think we got fed up," guard Chris Villarrial said.
The Bears are 2-2 over their last four games and have two remaining. "We're 4-10 now and all we can do is play spoilers," said tackle James "Big Cat" Williams. "Hopefully we set the Jets on a bad track. We have Carolina [next Sunday], and they're already on a bad track like us.
"And we have Tampa. It'd be nice to beat Tampa and send them up to Green Bay for the playoffs."
Before a crowd of 43,191, the Bears shut out the Jets for the first half. It was the first time all season they had held an opponent scoreless for a half. They turned Jets mistakes into points and did not lose the ball on a turnover for the first time this year.
More important, they made the Jets give the ball up and did it at the game's deciding moment, a time that for much of this season was reserved for their own game-blowing mistakes.
Trailing by a touchdown after a 48-yard Paul Edinger field goal with 2 minutes 38 seconds left, the Jets drove from their 24 to the Bears' 37 with 1:19 left. New York quarterback Chad Pennington then found receiver Wayne Chrebet on a slant pattern for 22 yards.
Safety Larry Whigham was in position to go for the big hit on Chrebet, but he had injured his back on the opening kickoff of the second half and was forced instead to go low. Chrebet tried to vault Whigham and safety Mike Green but dropped the ball as he put out his hands to break a headfirst fall.
Rookie cornerback Roosevelt Williams recovered the fumble, and the Jets had no timeouts to prevent the Bears from running out the clock.
The Jets, who lost last season to 2-12 Buffalo to nearly cost themselves a playoff berth, were furious with themselves at a lifeless performance against what they thought was a bad team.
"These December games mean so much, and we come in here against a team with nothing and we let them beat us," said cornerback Ray Mickens. "It's really disgusting. To be honest, I really can't stand it. It's one of the worst losses I can remember. It's as low as you can get.
"You work your whole year and beat good teams like Denver and San Diego, teams going to the playoffs or on the bubble. Then you have a team that's 3-10 and you come in here and we're struggling to just to stay in the game. It's sickening."
Mickens and the Jets had plenty to be sick about. They, not the Bears, made the stupid plays to cost themselves chances for the win. A 12th man on the field for a third down allowed the Bears to sustain the fourth-quarter drive for Edinger's field goal. A holding penalty on the second-half kickoff nullified a 97-yard touchdown return by Chad Morton.
In the third quarter, defensive tackle Jason Ferguson drew a 15-yard penalty for a flagrantly late body slam of quarterback Chris Chandler. The play infuriated the Bears' offensive linemen, who broke running back Leon Johnson for a 23-yard run on the next play. Johnson then powered into the end zone behind blocks by Villarrial and fullback Daimon Shelton from 2 yards out on the play after that.
"[Ferguson's] was a dumb play and moved us right down the field," center Olin Kreutz said.
"You're mad about it and you're going to hit him when the play's going on. You're not going be dumb. But obviously we wanted to get him back."
That run marked the first time all season that the Bears, a team that wanted to be defined by its running game, managed to score two rushing touchdowns in the same game. It was the first touchdown this season for ex-Jet Johnson, who last year was the Bears' consummate short-yardage runner with four touchdowns in 20 carries.
The Bears took a 3-0 lead when Edinger continued his outstanding season with a 53-yard field goal midway through the second quarter. They pushed it to 10-0 just before halftime when rookie Adrian Peterson scored his first NFL touchdown after devastating blocks by tackles Williams and Mike Gandy to score standing up on a 5-yard run.
The Jets scored the first three times they had the ball in the second half, beginning with a 5-yard scoring pass from Pennington to Chrebet. But after two of the three scores, the Bears answered with scores of their own, a rate of response seldom seen this season.
"Coach (Dick) Jauron has instilled character in us," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "We go out and fight hard and stay in games. You never know what's going to happen."