The season was all but over.
A little more than 5 1/2 minutes remained in regulation Sunday and the Denver Broncos led the Bears by 14. Rex Grossman was staggering through a three-turnover day. Cedric Benson was on crutches after suffering a first-half ankle injury. And a series of big plays against the Bears' defense was about to ruin a spectacular day by Devin Hester.
Somehow, some way, the Bears pulled through, staging an improbable comeback to win 37-34 in overtime ... just as defensive tackle Tommie Harris predicted.
"He's such an inspirational guy. He said we were going to win," Harris' defensive linemate Adewale Ogunleye said. "I know you can go 50-50 with that type of attitude. But he really believed it."
No one could have fathomed a scenario in which Robbie Gould nailed a 39-yard field goal on the first possession of overtime, capping a run of 17 straight points to keep the Bears breathing in the NFC wild-card race with a 5-6 record.
But it happened.
"Basically, we have to win every game if we want to get to the postseason," said wide receiver Bernard Berrian, whose nifty end-zone reception with 28 seconds left in regulation forced the overtime. "As long as we keep winning games, then I'm satisfied."
A whole series of events made the dramatic ending possible, most notably the Broncos' stubborn insistence on kicking to Hester. The Bears' spectacular return artist brought a punt back 75 yards for a third-quarter score, tying the game at 13-13, then returned a kickoff 88 yards for another touchdown and a 20-20 standoff 10 minutes later.
Hester now stands alone as the top returner in club history with 12.
"Devin's great,"' Grossman said. "Every time he gets the ball in his hands, he's a legitimate threat to score."
Running back Adrian Peterson, playing in place of the injured Benson, kept his legs churning with every carry, most notably a 4-yard, pile-driving touchdown run in the fourth that got the Bears within 37-27 with 5 minutes 17 seconds remaining. That score was set up when Charles Tillman blocked a punt by Todd Sauerbrun, the unfortunate ex-Bear who also handles kickoffs for the Broncos and who thus saw enough of Hester.
In the fourth quarter, the Bears finally got Hester some offensive help, matching his two touchdowns in the final 5:17. First came Peterson's inspirational run, then a 3-yard Grossman-to-Berrian hookup on fourth-and-goal from Denver's 3-yard line.
Grossman froze the defense with a pump fake, then lofted the ball toward Berrian in the right corner of the end zone. Berrian made a diving grab and got a knee down before sliding out of bounds. The play was reviewed upstairs, but the replay only confirmed what an outstanding catch it was.
"It was an amazing catch," said Grossman, who was 17 of 33 passing for 193 yards and that lone score. "He's a great player, has real long arms and great hand-eye coordination, obviously, to pull that one in."
Berrian acknowledged that the catch was "a lot tougher than it looked."
"The actual catch wasn't too hard of a catch," he said. "The biggest thing is I didn't want to slip and fall because of the surface we were playing on."
The Bears wouldn't have been in position to score had Broncos cornerback Dre' Bly not been flagged for illegal contact while covering Muhsin Muhammad on fourth-and-9 from the Bears' 36.
The overtime coin toss fell in the Bears' favor. Grossman hit tight end Desmond Clark with a 39-yard pass on the first play of the extra session to set up Gould's game-winner, his third field goal of the game. The Bears usually reserve the play for goal-line situations, but when Grossman caught the Broncos in the right defense it worked to perfection.
Yet the Bears were by no means perfect.
They made things harder on themselves by giving up 10 points off turnovers. Hester fumbled an early punt that led to a Jason Elam field goal. Grossman's first-quarter interception set up a 16-yard touchdown run by the Broncos' Andre Hall.
The Broncos had the Bears' defense on its heels with some clever play calls, including an option pitch and a counter on Hall's touchdown. Quarterback Jay Cutler carved the Bears up several times with long passes, including a 65-yard hookup with Hall on a screen pass in the second quarter and a 68-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Marshall in the third.
Seconds after Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler made an incredible catch of a touchdown pass between two Bears defenders in the fourth quarter, Brian Urlacher drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for kicking the ball, demonstrating how frustrated the Bears were while on the verge of their fourth loss in five homes games.
Yet despite being outgained 430-293 in total yards and committing four turnovers, they found a way to win and keep their playoff hopes alive.
"I didn't want to go out like this, another loss [in a] devastating season,"' Ogunleye said. "Guys believe."
A win over the New York Giants next Sunday is certain to attract more believers.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times