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No mistake: Lions steal one from Bears
The Bears looked like a mistake waiting to happen Sunday.
Make that several mistakes.
They transformed an eminently winnable game on the road into a 21-16 loss to the Detroit Lions in the Silverdome. Three early scoring opportunities dissipated into nothingness as the Bears (4-3) fell from the NFC Central throne they had shared with the Minnesota Vikings (5-2).
It was a mistake-filled day for the Bears, whose defense gave up only one touchdown. Trouble is, the Bears' offense and their special teams also gave up one touchdown each.
"I thought defensively that might have been the best we've played all year, and against a very talented team," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt. "They came up with plays and we had opportunities early. Our youth and our immaturity was the biggest thing that showed up today."
The Lions ended their three-game losing streak with big plays, including a 102-yard kickoff return by all-time return leader Mel Gray, an 84-yard run by Barry Sanders and an astonishing stripped ball and 25-yard touchdown return by linebacker Chris Spielman.
In spite of themselves, the Bears were in the game until the final drive.
Quarterback Erik Kramer, starting his first game since Sept. 18, began the game 0 for 6 passing. But he settled down and wound up 29 of 48 for 309 yards and two touchdowns, although he was intercepted three times and sacked three times.
"Erik played OK," said Wannstedt. "At the end, he handled the team well. The one interception, I mean, the ball was thrown up there and Curtis (Conway) . . . it was a jump ball. We have to make a play on that ball. That's where we wanted to go. We tried to throw the ball deep.
"And the other interception bounced off of Jeff Graham's chest. We didn't make plays."
Early on, the Bears caught every break, but could not capitalize.
The Bears' Kevin Miniefield recovered Gray's fumble at the Lions' 29 on the opening kickoff. But a 46-yard Kevin Butler field-goal attempt sailed wide.
The Bears drove to the Lions' 11 on their next possession, only to have Robert Massey pick off a Kramer pass that caromed off the hands of Graham.
A blocked pass by Bears defensive lineman Albert Fontenot was nearly caught and run in for an easy score, but he bobbled it away before he crossed the goal line.
Chris Gardocki's 40-yard punt pinned the Lions back at their own 3. But Sanders, who gained 167 yards on 23 carries, responded with the 84-yard run to the Bears' 13.
"You know how fast Jeremy Lincoln is. He's the fastest guy on our team," said Wannstedt. "He stuck his nose inside and thought (Sanders) was going to bounce it inside. Then (Sanders) bounced it outside."
Cornerback Donnell Woolford wound up making the saving tackle, but a 6-yard pass from Scott Mitchell (6 of 17 for 59 yards, one interception) to Brett Perriman made it 7-0 at 14:09 of the second period.
"I was just chasing all over the end zone and Mitchell broke somebody's containment," said Lincoln. "I looked up and he made a good pass. I thought (Perriman) was out of bounds, but the official said his foot was in."
Twenty seconds later, Kramer's 5-yard pass to tight end Chris Gedney was stripped from him by Spielman, who ran like a thief with a stolen loaf of bread into the end zone.
Gedney later suffered a fractured fibula that is expected to keep him out four to six weeks.
The Bears pulled within 14-7 with 26 seconds left in the half when Kramer found Nate Lewis in the end zone from 6 yards out to end a 10-play, 50-yard drive.
"I felt good about that because it was my first (TD) catch as a Bear," said Lewis. "I've got long arms, so I reached out and made the play."
A 22-yard Butler field goal late in the third quarter made it 14-10, but the momentum changed quickly.
Gardocki's kickoff was taken 2 yards deep in the end zone by Gray, who raced right up the middle for the 102-yard score and a 21-10 Detroit lead.
"We tried to give a few guys (Maurice Douglass, Albert Fontenot and Ron Cox) breathers on that kickoff coverage," said Wannstedt. "We had the young kids in there and they popped the kickoff return for a touchdown. We had some mental mistakes, some offsides. Two offensive interference calls."
Graham caught a season-best seven passes for 136 yards, including a 76-yard TD reception that pulled the Bears within 21-16 with 1:02 left in the third period. The two-point conversion pass to Conway was nullified on a pass-interference call by the Bears. The subsequent pass attempt failed. The reception had quickly silenced most of the crowd of 73,574. About 15,000 were Bears fans.
But a final Bears drive ended when a fourth-down pass from Kramer to Lewis fell incomplete.
"I felt I was hit," said Lewis. "The official made his call and that's the way the game goes. It's times like that when people get away with things like that. You just have to go out there and play hard and try to make plays regardless."
The young Bears hope to learn from Sunday's exercise in failed opportunities when they host the Green Bay Packers next Monday night.
"These young guys at the bottom of the roster, sooner or later they're going to have to play," said Wannstedt. "If we're going to beat a good team like Detroit in Detroit, we'll only be as strong as our weakest link."