Before Bears quarterback Kordell Stewart jogged off Invesco Field on Sunday after the Bears' 19-10 victory over the Broncos, he acknowledged the adulation above him with his patented toothy smile. That's the one Stewart brought to Chicago and hadn't used in a while.
From the seats on one side of the tunnel, a pocket of hearty Bears fans with frozen faces but warmed hearts leaned over the railings as they chanted, "Go Bears! Go Bears!" Across the aisle, a few locals with good memories of Stewart's college days in Colorado showered him with cries of "Go Buffs! Go Buffs!"
Their words were different, but their purpose the same.
They were cheering Stewart for saving their favorite team.
"It was good to somewhat come back home and see some friends here," Stewart said after rallying the Bears from a 10-9 deficit to their first victory on the road in 13 games. "This was my first chance since I've been in the league to come back and play here. To have that opportunity and win, it was wonderful."
The opportunity came out of necessity. With 10 minutes 23 seconds left in the second quarter, starting quarterback Chris Chandler suffered what he termed a mild separation to his throwing shoulder when Broncos defensive end Trevor Pryce threw him to the ground on a sack that was negated by a face-mask penalty.
Chandler didn't realize the extent of the injury until the next series, when he uncorked a deep pass to wide receiver Marty Booker and experienced an unusual feeling in his shoulder. But he continued to play, and he even led the Bears on a six-play, 30-yard scoring drive at the end of the first half that culminated with Paul Edinger's 54-yard field goal with three seconds left.
At halftime, the coaching staff and medical team determined Chandler couldn't go. So the Bears turned to Stewart, who hadn't taken a snap since Oct. 12 against the Saints after being benched.
"Kordell came in and he was ready," tight end Desmond Clark said.
All week on the scout team, Stewart had imitated Denver quarterback Jake Plummer. Sunday, he outplayed him.
Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson thought Stewart had never prepared better for a game, even quizzing the coaching staff on the game plan.
"It was strange at this point of the season to have him like that, but he was very sharp," Olson said. "You don't see guys like that after being demoted."
Stewart's numbers suggest that he wasn't as sharp as everyone was saying afterward in a jubilant locker room; he completed just 7-of-15 passes for 47 yards and rushed eight times for 29 more. But Stewart converted two fourth-down plays on the key 15-play drive that put the Bears ahead for good when he leaped over the goal line on fourth-and-inches. He also commanded the huddle like a guy who hadn't lost his confidence when he lost his job.
"That was probably the best I've ever seen him play, and that is certainly a compliment to him," the Broncos' Pryce said.
Whether it was good enough for Stewart to keep the job regardless of Chandler's health or rookie Rex Grossman's timetable didn't concern Stewart. Dick Jauron will announce his decision on the quarterback situation Wednesday after learning more about Chandler's shoulder and evaluating Sunday's game film.
"If Chris is ready, great; if not, I'll have to get myself ready again," Stewart said. "It's not about me being selfish saying what I need or what I want or what coach should do."
The victory provided such a tonic for Stewart that he even threw a compliment, though backhanded, in the direction of offensive coordinator John Shoop.
"Coach Shoop called a game plan that allowed us to actually go out and make some plays," Stewart said.
It would have gone for naught without clutch play from the Bears' special teams and a defense that made stops when it had to.
Without Edinger's four field goals, after all, the Bears never would have reached their peak of the season in the Mile High City. The ease with which Edinger kicked 33-, 23-, 54- and 47-yarders made it hard to believe Jauron didn't let him try a 53-yarder against the wind in the third quarter instead of punting. It also looked nothing like the guy whose misses in the last two weeks may have cost the Bears two victories.
"As Paul said, what slump?" Jauron kidded afterward.
Answered Edinger: "I think I got some things straightened out [last] week. ... Our special teams as a whole played really well."
Indeed, Jerry Azumah returned three kickoffs for 116 yards and kept the Bears' offense on a short field all day. That allowed the offense to stay within its game plan and control the clock as the Bears won the time-of-possession battle by holding the ball for 32 minutes 43 seconds.
That enabled the defense to stay rested and aggressive. Playing the bulk of the second half with a lead helped too.
"We got a chance to do more things," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "You're more comfortable [because] you don't want to out there [and play] tight all the time."
Hard to imagine Urlacher being any happier after a game in which his defense gave up 200 yards rushing. But nearly half the yards came in two large chunks: a 23-yard run by Quentin Griffin on which Urlacher was blocked and a 59-yard scamper by Clinton Portis that came with Urlacher and safety Mike Brown out temporarily with injuries.
After an opening touchdown drive in which the Broncos looked unbeatable by going 78 yards on 12 plays, the Bears' defense adjusted to the altitude, the 8-degree wind-chill and Plummernot necessarily in that order.
"Everybody came through when it mattered," said defensive tackle Keith Traylor, another Bear who enjoyed his homecoming Sunday. Traylor played four seasons with the Broncos and won two Super Bowls.
"Not just because it was against the Broncos, but we needed one, especially on the road," Traylor said. "So it was a special win."
It was a win that the Bears believe they earned no matter what Denver's critics will say.
"I know that team and I know that [Mike] Shanahan's never going to let the team go into a game not prepared to play," former Bronco Clark said.
The Bears were just more prepared Sunday, and now they're ready for anything.
"We know it's a long shot, but we're not going to give up," Urlacher said of the Bears' remote postseason chances. "We play hard no matter what."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times