In driver's seat

SportsFootballChicago BearsHunter HillenmeyerKyle OrtonLovie SmithR.W. McQuarters

An extremely long and rewarding Sunday began with a challenge and ended with a Bears celebration not seen in this stadium since, well, forever, and not seen in Chicago since 2001.

There's something about Jeff Garcia and interception returns for game-winning touchdowns in overtime that seem to spark special Bears seasons. And Charles "Peanut" Tillman was more than happy to reprise Mike Brown's role from four years ago this time.

Responding to a pregame training-room challenge from Jerry Azumah as they had their ankles taped, Tillman broke on a Garcia pass intended for Mike Williams and dashed 22 yards into the end zone with the interception, ending a dramatic 19-13 victory over Detroit 6 minutes 17 seconds into overtime.

"Jerry was like, 'How many defensive touchdowns you got?'" Tillman recalled. "I was like, 'None.' He was like, 'You need to get you one.' He pretty much called me out.

"This is my third year in the league and the first time I've been in first place. I'm going to savor the moment."

Winning at Ford Field for the first time in four tries and in a city where the automobile is king, the Bears are clearly in the driver's seat in the NFC North.

A season sweep of the Lions gives the Bears the tiebreaker and, essentially, a two-game lead in the division. Their third straight victory and first on the road resonated even more powerfully when both Minnesota and Green Bay lost.

It came on the Bears' first takeaway in more than eight quarters and helped them avoid blowing a 10-point halftime lead.

The ending proved especially sweet vindication for Tillman, who was victimized for a 51-yard touchdown by Roy Williams the last time these teams played.

"I'm very happy for him on a personal level," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "He's a guy who works hard constantly. He deserves big plays to happen to him. If you continue to work, eventually you're going to get something big."

After a dismal first quarter in which they managed just 10 yards and trailed 3-0, the Bears got something big offensively.

Kyle Orton, who threw for a career-best 230 yards against a Detroit secondary decimated by injuries, directed the Bears' first 99-yard touchdown drive since—gasp—Cade McNown turned the trick against Green Bay on Oct, 1, 2000.

The drive started with Bobby Wade letting a punt bounce to the 1, Fred Miller getting called for a false start and Thomas Jones barely escaping a safety on first down. It gained steam with the Bears' longest play from scrimmage this season, a 54-yard pass play to Mark Bradley, who later left with a serious knee injury.

And it ended with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad, who made a spectacular leaping grab between Terrence Holt and R.W. McQuarters to thrill his 25 friends and family members watching his first home-state game.

The Bears followed with a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ended with Robbie Gould's 38-yard field goal.

"Those drives are just demoralizing for a defense," Orton said.

When a 17-yard Nick Harris punt gave them gift field position at the Lions' 35 just before halftime, things really looked to be going the Bears' way. Gould took advantage with a 20-yard field goal, set up by Orton finding Justin Gage for 25 yards.

But Detroit shook off four consecutive three-and-out possessions to rally. Kevin Jones capped a 12-play, 85-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown run, the first rushing touchdown the Bears have given up this season.

And Jason Hansen's 30-yard field goal tied the game 13-13 with 13:20 to play in regulation, a score set up by Garcia's 23-yard pass to Scottie Vines and a personal foul on Tillman.

"We let them get back in the game," Brown said disgustedly.

After a Jones fumble killed the ensuing Bears' drive that had neared field-goal range, confusion reigned. Under pressure from Urlacher, Garcia threw a sideways pass that would've made Garo Yepremian blush. Hunter Hillenmeyer scooped up what the Bears thought was a fumble and rumbled into the end zone.

After a lengthy delay, the referees ruled intentional grounding on Garcia, which the Bears challenged. They lost.

But they refused to lose the game, getting a huge Alex Brown sack on Detroit's final possession in regulation with just over two minutes remaining, at a time the Lions flirted with field-goal range.

Another strong defensive stand forced Detroit to punt after three plays of overtime. And after the Bears also punted, Tillman struck.

"Charles has been through a lot this year," coach Lovie Smith said. "He had a tough spell early in the season. He came back after that. Good football players eventually play that way. That's just a huge play."

It came off pressure supplied by Alfonso Boone on Garcia, but the Bears aren't feeling much.

As Orton talked about the victory, Smith waited for his turn behind the podium by leaning against a stainless steel refrigerator in the stadium's bowels. A cool customer, indeed, and the team appears to be taking Smith's lead in more ways than one.

"I know you're tired of me saying this, but it's still early," Urlacher said. "We'd like to stretch our lead. We want to stack wins up. We think we have the capability of doing that. We just have to keep playing hard and playing well. We have a long way to go."

kcjohnson@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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SportsFootballChicago BearsHunter HillenmeyerKyle OrtonLovie SmithR.W. McQuarters
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