Officially, the Bears beamed like never before this season. Brian Urlacher had stood ready to lead the defense back onto the field with 52 seconds left in Sunday's 24-16 victory over the Detroit Lions when the Bears got the call for which they had waited seven games: one in their favor.
"We got a break today, finally," Urlacher said.
His smirk suggested that it was about time.
After losses to the Saints and Seahawks, the Bears spent nearly as much time dissecting officials' calls as they did game film. Sunday, more than a few Bears mentioned privately that it might be the Lions' turn to complain.
Detroit's Bill Schroeder appeared to have recovered Jason Hanson's onside kick at the Lions' 40-yard line, racing past an unready Dez White. But replay official Howard Slavin made the decision from the booth to challenge the call on the field, his right in the final two minutes of either half, questioning whether Schroeder had touched the ball before it traveled the required 10 yards. After reviewing the play, referee Larry Nemmers said Schroeder had caught the ball just before the 40.
If Mr. Slavin receives a box of cigars Monday morning, there could be plenty of suspects at Halas Hall.
"I was on the field [and] it looked like [Schroeder] got it to me," Urlacher said.
The reversal allowed the Bears to run out the clock by taking a knee on a day they took a step closer to respectability. They did so by following a bunch of rookies who gave the Bears the look of a team playing for the future if they weren't so vital to the present.
Injuries thrust running back Brock Forsey and wide receivers Justin Gage and Bobby Wade into prominent roles on offense, of which they took advantage, while as many as six first-year players contributed on an improved defense that gave up only one scoring drive.
"The veterans better get their [butts] back to practice because these rookies are playing their tails off," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said.
The Soldier Field kiddie parade started with 7 minutes 58 seconds left in the second quarter.
There was no score in a game that threatened to inspire a good snooze as much as a chorus of boos when rookie defensive end Michael Haynes bore down on Joey Harrington. The Lions' quarterback rushed a throw that floated into the secondary and fell into the arms of another rookie, cornerback Charles Tillman, who returned his first NFL interception 32 yards to the Lions' 24.
Three plays later, quarterback Chris Chandler read a blitz and zipped a pass to Gage, who broke Jimmy Wyrick's tackle and sprinted the final 11 yards for his first NFL touchdown.
"Justin has made a terrific jump," coach Dick Jauron said.
Jauron was talking about Gage's progress, but just as easily could have meant the catch the 6-foot-4-inch receiver from Missouri made at the end of the first half. Leading 7-0 with the ball at their own 44 and just 11 seconds left, the Bears needed the type of big play they had lacked so far this season.
Then the player drafted out of the Show-Me State showed he might be the guy to change that trend.
Gage ran a streak route on 37-year-old Otis Smith, and Chandler threw a pass he later admitted he didn't expect to be caught. Gage caught it, wrestling it away from Smith at the Detroit 19.
That made possible Paul Edinger's 37-yard field goal with three seconds left to make it 10-0, giving the Bears their first halftime lead since Dec. 15.
Not to be outdone by his fellow fifth-rounder, Wade caught three passes for 39 yards, all on third downs.
"They probably weren't focusing on me and Bobby as much," Gage said of the Lions. "So we got the opportunity to prove to a lot of people that we can play and belong at this level."
Forsey made a few more believers himself with straight-ahead running Bears fans appreciate, gaining 56 yards on 19 carries. That included Forsey's first NFL touchdown, an 8-yard scamper with 5:23 left in the third quarter to put the Bears up 24-0.
"It's always great to be a part of a player's first," Jauron said.
When the youthful enthusiasm wasn't injecting life into the Bears, veteran Jerry Azumah was. Azumah returned the opening kickoff of the second half 89 yards and, for maybe the first time, an air of confidence enveloped the new Soldier Field.
It wouldn't last long, thanks to two special-teams breakdowns.
After Forsey's touchdown, Reggie Swinton found a crease in the Bears' kickoff coverage and outran everybody for a 96-yard touchdown. Then on the first series of the fourth quarter with 9:20 left, with a chance to make the lead a three-possession mountain to climb for the Lions, Edinger's 32-yard field goal was blocked by James Hall.
"Obviously, we made some errors to let them back into the game," Jauron said.
But the Lions failed to take advantage on the following series, dinking themselves to death with a mixture of short passes that barely stayed in the air long enough to wobble. The Lions ran 16 plays that ate up 7:07 but turned the ball over on downs at the Bears' 3 when a fourth-and-2 pass fell incomplete.
The Bears' defense might have walked away feeling satisfied about its effort if not for the Lions' final scoring drive. Detroit marched 43 yards on five plays and picked on Tillman twice, once on a 19-yard completion to Schroeder down to the Bears' 3 and on the two-point conversion lob in the corner of the end zone to Scotty Anderson.
Defensive coordinator Greg Blache called the Schroeder completion a "bonehead play" by Tillman.
"That ball should have been intercepted," Blache said. "For some reason, we're a little short of brains right now. I think we sit on them."
The Bears still walked off the field planning to "stack some wins," as Azumah put it, and convinced that the worst of this season was behind them. It didn't matter to the Bears that the Lions (1-6) might rate as the third-best team in their home state, an opinion that Eastern Michigan fans in Ypsilanti might dispute. It didn't matter to the Bears that they couldn't exhale Sunday until a replay official gave them the signal.
"A win's a win," Urlacher said.
Good call.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times