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The requisite perspiration from a hard day`s work turned into a cold sweat as the Bears were forced to work overtime to overturn the dastardly Denver Broncos 16-13 Sunday.
With a Mile High Stadium crowd of 75,013 turning up its deafening volume, Bears kicker Kevin Butler drilled a 44-yard field goal with 1 minute 46 seconds left in overtime to provide a triumph in what many Bears players later referred to as ``playoff-game atmosphere.``
Butler`s clutch three-pointer atoned for his 40-yard miss at the end of regulation that caromed high off the left upright and fell back into the end zone.
``It was like getting a retrial on a murder case,`` said Butler of his game-winner.
The Bears (9-1), who won their sixth straight, are close to clinching the NFC Central Division title. They kept alive their hopes of finishing ahead of the undefeated San Francisco 49ers and/or New York Giants in the playoff standings.
The 49ers (10-0) and Giants (10-0) play each other Dec. 3. The Bears` lone loss was to an AFC opponent, the Raiders. Two of the three division leaders in the NFC receive byes in the opening round of the playoffs, while the team with the worst record must play a wild-card team on that bye week.
Neal Anderson, who practiced only one day last week because of a hamstring strain, not only started Sunday but carried the ball a career-high 28 times for 111 yards.
``The play-action worked pretty well in the second half,`` said Anderson. ``I`ll give the Broncos a lot of credit. They played a heck of a ballgame. The yards were all tough. No 80-yard runs. All were fairly short runs.``
Quarterback Jim Harbaugh, whose bruised shoulder and sternum rendered him questionable until the middle of last week, completed 13 of 28 passes for 147 yards. But Harbaugh emerged with a hamstring injury to his right leg.
The Bears lost starting cornerback Lemuel Stinson to a strained knee early in the game, but regrouped in the second half and kept Denver quarterback John Elway (24 of 41 for 262 yards, 1 interception) on the run in the second half. Elway was sacked six times for 40 yards in losses.
``The defense, when they had to play in the overtime period, was outstanding,`` said Bears coach Mike Ditka. ``We did the things we had to do on offense. We have to get better, we know that. I ran the ball too much. I know that also. But when you try to do the right thing, you have to do what you feel in your heart.``
The game plodded along as a rather uneventful defensive contest in the first half as Denver led 6-3 on 27- and 24-yard field goals by David Treadwell. Butler`s second-period 37-yarder represented the Bears` only points.
When fullback Brad Muster (48 yards on 11 carries) bolted in from 10 yards out early in the third quarter, the Bears seemed destined to deliver the knockout punch to a Denver team (3-7) already in disarray.
But Elway punctuated an impressive eight-play, 70-yard drive with a 9- yard touchdown run with 1:14 left in regulation to tie the game 13-13.
``I really thought after I scored that we were right back in it,`` said Elway.
But then the drama began to intensify.
From their own 28, the Bears began a drive to the Denver 23. A 17-yard pass from Harbaugh to Ron Morris, a brilliant improvisational pass of 24 yards to Anderson from shotgun formation and a 6-yard Anderson run set Butler up for the potential heroics.
He lined up for the 40-yard attempt and it smacked off the left upright.
The Broncos won the toss in overtime and began a drive from their own 12. After moving Denver to their own 38, Elway was sacked on third down by Trace Armstrong for a 4-yard loss.
``It was an emotional game. You lay it on the line for four quarters, and you get there and it is not enough,`` said Armstrong. ``We were all tired. We were out there playing on emotion.``
After an unsuccessful drive, Bears punter Maury Buford (eight punts for 44.8 average) pinned the Broncos back to their own 8.
After runs of 7, 6 and 5 yards by Bobby Humphrey (83 yards on 23 carries), the Broncos faced a second-and-five from their own 26. A pass intended for tight end Clarence Kay was dropped in the flat. On third down, Elway was sacked by rookie linebacker Ron Cox for an important 8-yard loss.
``I kept digging deep down inside of me,`` Cox said. ``I kept playing hard.``
Again a Bears drive stalled as Harbaugh suffered his hamstring injury on an 8-yard run to midfield. Mike Tomczak took over for one play (an incomplete pass) before Harbaugh returned. On fourth down, Buford sent a high spiral with reverse spin that nearly spun a hole in the ground at the Broncos` 4.
``The only difference in the game was field position in the overtime period,`` said Ditka, whose team played its first overtime game since 1986.
Three plays netted one yard before the Broncos` Mike Horan punted 49 yards to Johnny Bailey. The rookie returned the kick 20 yards, setting his team up at the Denver 34. It was the longest punt return against the Broncos all season.
Muster rushed two yards before Bears tackle Jim Covert, bothered by the crowd noise, was whistled for a false start to push them back to the 37.
Harbaugh passed 9 yards to tight end James Thornton to move it to the 28 before Muster bulled forward for another yard.
Then Butler came in for his game-winning play.
``I thought I hit a little bit of the turf on that last one, but it was good enough to get through,`` said Butler.
``The Bears won the battle of field position because of their persistence,`` said Broncos coach Dan Reeves.
``It is hard to have a team win and it is hard to have a team lose under these circumstances because I feel so close to Dan,`` said Ditka, a longtime friend of Reeves. ``We set some goals earlier in the year for our team and we are trying to reach them.
``We had some added incentive. We had a dear friend of ours (11-year-old Becky Bell, the daughter of a friend of Ditka`s) who passed away Saturday morning. And she will enjoy it,`` said Ditka, his voice choking with emotion.