Taking one look at the replay on the giant video board inside Ford Field with 1 minutes 26 seconds left in Sunday's 19-13 loss to the Detroit Lions, the Bears believed they had regained their mojo in Motown.
Bernard Berrian, who had just scored the apparent go-ahead touchdown on a 43-yard pass from Chad Hutchinson, traded chest bumps with David Terrell.
Offensive coordinator Terry Shea exhaled three weeks' worth of relief.
A smiling Hutchinson smacked high-fives and started a sideline celebration the football gods would never let him finish.
Asked if he had begun to celebrate, Hutchinson answered: "Didn't [everyone]? [Berrian] had two feet in and kept the ball in his possession. When I see it on TV like that, it's a touchdown."
Even Lions coach Steve Mariucci said, "I think it might have been a touchdown, maybe, like you did."
The Bears already had begun setting up their two-minute defense when referee Terry McAulay became the grinch who stole the Bears' Christmas weekend win.
Replay official Bobby Skelton reviewed the play in consultation with McAulay, who then announced to the delight of the crowd that Berrian had not had control of the football when he came down in the end zone.
"After review, as the receiver was going to the ground on his own, the ball moved when he hit the ground," McAulay said. "It is an incomplete pass as ruled on the field."
Bears ecstasy became agony in an instant. The look on coach Lovie Smith's face was longer than the Bears' road losing streak in December, now at seven games, and his expression had not changed after the game.
"I got the same explanation that you got it, [and] I'm still not exactly sure what it was," Smith said. "I think in time more people will see it my way.
"Maybe I'm wrong, [and] if you slow it down, and slow it down, maybe I saw it different and they had the best shot. I'll go home and look at it tonight. Of course, that doesn't really matter."
Berrian, the rookie deep threat who beat reserve cornerback Andre Goodman by a step, had worried that his feet were out of bounds but never doubted his control of the ball.
"All they needed to take was one look at it to see that," Berrian said. "I don't really know what else to say."
The Bears similarly ran out of answers when their offense returned to the field after the no-touchdown call "knocked us back," Smith said. Three straight incompletions by a rattled Hutchinson ensured the Bears' 10th loss of a tough-luck season.
"We should not have let it come down to that," Hutchinson said. "I'll take it upon my shoulders as the quarterback that we didn't play well until the fourth quarter. I'm just a little fired up right now."
For most of four quarters in the Motor City, the Bears' offense looked as high-powered as the Model T.
The running game improved as Thomas Jones enjoyed his first 100-yard game since Sept. 26 with 109 yards on 22 carries. But the passing game stretched the field as little as it did the imagination. Hutchinson completed 20 of 35 passes for just 114 yardsonly 5.7 yards per completion compared with 5.0 yards per carry for Jonesin a low-risk, low-reward attack.
With former coach Dick Jauron calling defenses for the Lions, the Bears played as if John Shoop were calling plays for them again.
"We challenged the guys at halftime to come out and be the team we think we can be," Smith said.
The Bears initially played as if they were not listening.
Jones fumbled on the first series of the third quarter at the Bears' 42, and Lions safety Bracy Walker recovered. Until the fourth quarter, the Bears' best open-field run came from linebacker Lance Briggs.
Aided by safety Mike Green's blitz that forced quarterback Joey Harrington to flip the ball toward tight end Stephen Alexander with 3:49 left in the third quarter, Briggs picked off the errant pass and raced 38 yards to the end zone with the Bears' first touchdown since Dec. 5 against Minnesota. Hutchinson's two-point conversion pass failed, though.
"Then the offense woke up," Smith said.
It had been an 11-quarter nap.
On the first series of the fourth quarter, Hutchinson capped a nine-play, 90-yard drive with a 15-yard TD pass to fullback Jason McKie. Jones carried five times for 36 yards on that drive behind an offense that appeared to wear down a solid Detroit defensive front.
"It might look different, but our offense isn't that far offa play here or there," Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz said.
As big as the call against Berrian was, more than that one play doomed the Bears on a day on which they were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
An offside penalty against Green on fourth-and-9 at the Bears' 42 midway through the second quarter, for instance, enticed the Lions to go for it. Harrington scrambled for the first down, and three plays later Jason Hanson made the Bears pay for their carelessness with a 39-yard field goal. It was the second of his four field goals.
Hanson's third came after a lapse in concentration by the Bears' secondary at the end of the first half. On third-and-11 with 18 seconds left, receiver Reggie Swinton found a seam between cornerback Nathan Vasher and safety R.W. McQuarters, and Harrington put the ball in the perfect spot for a 28-yard completion. Hanson split the uprights from 34 yards out to make it 16-0 at halftime.
"The effort of the first half was terrible," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said.
Indeed, the Bears gave up 248 of Detroit's 314 total yards before halftime. Briggs' interception sparked a second-half revival that continued with Green appearing to make amends for his earlier penalty by causing running back Kevin Jones to fumble on third-and-2 at the Bears' 21 early in the fourth quarter. Charles Tillman recovered.
But Detroit challenged, the call was reversed and Hanson nailed a 40-yard field goal that turned out to be more important than it seemed at the time.
Tillman just shook his head recalling that sequenceand a day on which the Bears believed they deserved better.
"Is it a respect issue?" Tillman asked about the calls going against the Bears. "We're the Bears, they're the Lions. Not to take anything away from the Lions, they did whip us. But we had the same record, so we should have the same respect they have, right?"Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times