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Bears contend but can't prevent final-stop flop
If the Bears were any more banged up in the waning moments of Sunday's 24-17 loss to Seattle at Seahawks Stadium, their injury report might have needed a binder.
Their offense had just scored to tie the game 17-17 with 4 minutes 12 seconds left on a drive using the third-string tailback, two rookie receivers, a right guard who had sprained his knee earlier in the day, a left tackle who was playing with a knee sore enough to keep him out of practice nearly all week, and backups at flanker, tight end and quarterback. Still, they offered more resistance than excuses.
"The cop-out thing, to say that, would be really hard," said quarterback Chris Chandler, whose leadership seemed to steady the group and tighten his grip on the starting job.
Led by Chandler, the offense had gutted it out and given the Bears a chance to win a road game they had no business winning against one of the best teams in the NFC. Now, deep into the fourth quarter, they had stolen the momentum and salvaged some hope.
All they needed was for their defense, the foundation on which confidence for this season was built, to make a stop. Too bad for the Bears that foundation again seemed to have been built on marshland.
"The offense put up enough points for us to win and did a great job," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "We were exactly where we wanted to be, but we just couldn't stop them. I don't know why."
The defense looked like it didn't know how, either, on the fateful drive.
The Seahawks went right down the field and capped the decisive seven-play, 72-yard scoring march with a 25-yard touchdown run by Shaun Alexander with 58 seconds left. Alexander started left, squirted through a hole made by tackle Walter Jones and broke free into the secondary.
By the time safety Mike Brown whiffed on a touchdown-saving tackle at the 5, the Bears had no defense for failing on their biggest defensive series of the season.
"I guess we lost contain," linebacker Brian Urlacher said.
They lost more than contain. They lost an opportunity to steal a victory before entering a part of the schedule that softens considerably. Instead of being 2-4 and excited about three winnable games approaching, the Bears left town 1-5 and able to assume nothing once again.
"We've got to find ways to win rather than ways to lose," coach Dick Jauron said.
For the second straight week, the Bears will say officiating helped lead them toward the downward spiral.
The call that received the most scrutiny came on second-and-20 from the Bears' 40 on the Seahawks' game-winning drive. Rookie cornerback Charles Tillman, flagged twice Sunday, went over the top of Seattle receiver Koren Robinson to bat away the pass. What Tillman called good timing an official called pass interference, and the Seahawks had an automatic first down at the 25.
"Officials did a poor job with that call," Tillman complained.
Added Daniels: "It might be a thing that they're picking on him because he's a rookie."
At least Tillman had an excuse, which was more than anyone could say for the Bears' other cornerback, R.W. McQuarters. His pass interference in the end zone in the second quarter moved the ball 29 yards to the Bears' 1. Alexander scored his first touchdown on the next play.
On the next series, McQuarters let former Bear Bobby Engram get behind him for a 25-yard TD pass on an underthrown ball that Engram came back to catch.
Those two plays, combined with a muffed fumble on a punt return, made it a day to forget for McQuarters.
"I played bad, and I feel like I'm my worst critic," he said.
The defensive shortcomings figure to be overlooked by fans this week as a potential quarterback controversy brews thanks to Chandler's showing. Chandler admitted to being nervous "like a rookie," adding, "The first couple series it was like Mach 2."
But eventually his experience helped the Bears read blitzes more quickly and be in a position to win the game. He even converted a two-point conversion by running the ball left after his intended receiver, tight end Dustin Lyman, was covered in the right flat.
"That was a sandlot, chicken-with-his-head-cut-off kind of thing," Chandler said.
Overall, he completed 19-of-34 passes for 149 yards with two interceptions, including a costly one on the Bears' last drive with 44 seconds left.
"I wish he wouldn't have thrown the last one, obviously," Jauron said. "[But] I thought Chris played a pretty good football game, a strong football game. He's in control."
Jauron sounded like a man content with his decision at quarterback, even if changing starters didn't change the way the script ended. He said he will announce next Sunday's starter Wednesday. Chandler weighed in on the debate like a guy who has been in this situation before on six other teams over 16 NFL seasons.
"That's a really interesting question," Chandler said. "I'm not worried thinking about that. I'm just concerned with how I played."
Meanwhile, Kordell Stewart concerns himself with getting well. Stewart, who charted plays Sunday, expects his bruised left thigh to heal quickly and acknowledged he could have played if needed.
"But it would have been selfish for me to make a deal out of it after the decision was made," Stewart said.
What decision does Stewart expect Jauron to make now?
"I've never been told it was a demotion," Stewart said. "I just want to get back out there and play."
Jauron knows the Bears' problems go deeper than who plays quarterback, and the Chandler-Stewart choice won't have any effect on a defense that has been more underachieving than overwhelming. The Bears improved in many aspects by stopping the run and creating two turnovers on defense, but Jauron knows Year 5 of an NFL head coach's tenure is no time to discuss moral victories.
Asked if he saw signs that implied the Bears are making progress, Jauron paused before he replied.
"That's a question I don't think I'll answer," he said. "Because however I answer it it's not going to look real good."