The Bears will discover Thursday the true meaning of Thanksgiving, at least as the holiday applies to the NFC Central Division race.
With barely enough time to swallow the stunning 16-13 overtime defeat handed to them Sunday by the opportunistic Miami Dolphins, the Bears (9-3) will try to defend their suddenly precarious one-game lead over the Detroit Lions (8-4) Thursday in the Silverdome.
It will be the Bears' second helping of the Lions this season, having tamed them 20-10 at Soldier Field last month.
The Bears let this one against Miami (6-6) slip away in the final two minutes of regulation before a frozen (4-degree wind-chill factor) and disappointed Soldier Field crowd of 58,288. But even with the loss, the Bears retained a playoff bye when Atlanta stunned New Orleans in overtime Sunday night.
Holding a 13-6 lead, Bears punter Maury Buford watched the snap from Jerry Fontenot sail high over his head. Buford tracked down the bouncing ball, whirled and tried to punt it. But the Dolphins' Marc Logan was there to block the kick, and Paul Lankford recovered at the Bears' 4-yard line. Two plays later, Dan Marino passed 2 yards to tight end Ferrell Edmunds with 1 minute 51 seconds left. Pete Stoyanovich kicked the extra point for a 13-13 tie.
"You get into a groove and I felt like the wind would have knocked (the long snap) down," said Fontenot of the swirling 16 m.p.h. wind. "It didn't. And consequently, it had a little too much lift. I didn't think it would be that high, but it was. I obviously have to work on snapping into the wind."
Buford had averaged 42.5 yards on his four previous punts. But he had no chance on his final attempt.
"I knew they were going to be coming with the rush," said Buford. "When I turned around, I saw a couple guys coming, but I felt I could still get the ball off, and that's what I tried to do."
Asked if he considered running back into the end zone to take a safety, Buford said: "I'm not fast enough to do that. I always think about what I'm going to do in a situation like that. It just didn't work out."
Coach Mike Ditka didn't blame Buford for the snafu.
"He did the right thing; he tried to kick it," said Ditka. "That's what we teach him. There's nothing he can do.
"First of all, he shouldn't be in that situation. It's hard to put a guy in that situation and then ask him to react ideally. It's tough. He just tried to do what he could. It wasn't his fault. It was just something that happens. We've won some close ones, we lost a close one."
The Bears drove to the Dolphins' 32 at the end of regulation, but Kevin Butler's 50-yard field-goal attempt was short.
During overtime, Marino moved Miami to the Bears' 5, highlighted by a 30- yard pass to Mark Clayton. Two plays later, Stoyanovich ended the Bears' five-game winning streak with a 27-yard field goal.
"We win as a team and we lose them as a team," said Ditka. "This is a classic example of a team effort to lose a football game. We lost it because we didn't play well. We had a number of opportunities to do what we had to do and they beat us. I have to give them credit."
The last thing the coaches said to Fontenot before he trotted onto the field for the fateful punt was to make sure he got off a good snap.
"It was unfortunate we made the mistakes that we made in the last part of the game," said Ditka. "They capitalized on them, so that makes them a better football team than us right now.
"We don't have too much time to feel sorry for ourselves. We have a couple days to get ready for Detroit. And we're really beat up physically. We have a lot of guys hurt."
Among the injured are fullback Brad Muster, who injured a hamstring. He gained 54 yards on eight carries in the first half. Neal Anderson, playing with a sore hamstring, picked up 43 yards on 21 carries.
"I doubt that Muster will be able to play Thursday," said Ditka. "Anderson, I don't know. He probably will be able to play as well as he did tonight. He's not 100 percent. I don't know about Keith Van Horne (sore left shoulder). I don't know about Jim Thornton (sore foot). We hope we can get some people patched up by Thursday.
"Muster is probably out for a couple of weeks, minimum. You can see what happened when we lost him (at the start of the season). We lost our whole offense, actually. That's hard to believe, but it looked like that."
The Bears rolled to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when Muster scored from 3 yards out with 4:55 left in the period. The drive covered 59 yards in 11 plays.
The teams exchanged turnovers within a one-minute span at the end of the first period and the start of the second.
Cornerback Lemuel Stinson picked off a Marino pass intended for Clayton with 11 seconds left in the opening period. He returned it eight yards and set the Bears up on their own 33.
Two plays later, Jim Harbaugh hit Anderson with a short pass. Linebacker Cliff Odom stuffed Anderson behind the line of scrimmage and his fumble was recovered by T.J. Turner with 14:24 to go in the second quarter.
Miami drove to the Bears' 11 on a 19-yard pass to Clayton. But fullback Sammie Smith, strangely afflicted with fumble-itis near the opponent's goal line this season, coughed up the ball when strong safety Shaun Gayle upended him. Stinson was on the scene again to grab the fumble.
Mark Higgs replaced Smith in the Dolphins' next series.
Miami finally got on the board with a 35-yard field goal by Stoyanovich with 1:56 left in the half to make it 7-3. The drive covered 45 yards on 11 plays.
The Bears countered with a well-designed 64-yard scoring drive that resulted in Butler's 32-yard field goal at the gun to give the Bears a 10-3 lead. The drive included a shake-and-bake 24-yard run by Muster and an 11-yard pass from Harbaugh to Wendell Davis.
The Bears consumed 11:07 on their opening drive of the second half, but wound up with only a 19-yard field goal by Butler.
Stoyanovich pulled Miami to within 13-6 with a 22-yard field goal early in the fourth period.
The Bears had a chance to grab a comfortable 10-point lead on their next possession that wound up at the Dolphins' 5. But Harbaugh bobbled the snap on Butler's 24-yard field-goal attempt, throwing off the timing of the kick. Butler stopped on his approach, stutter-stepped and chipped the kick wide.
"I fault myself for dropping that snap," said Harbaugh. "Then a lot of things happened. I guess it finally happened to us."
The way the Bears handle this tough loss without pointing fingers and sulking will probably go a long way in determining how they will play Thursday.
"The thing that got us to this point is execution," said linebacker Mike Singletary. "And if we don't execute, we don't win."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times