Back in the saddle

SportsFootballChicago BearsCurtis ConwayChris GardockiJason HansonAlbert Fontenot

Scoot over, Minnesota.

Step aside, Green Bay. Jump back, Detroit.

For a team that was merely trying to remain in the background of the playoff picture, the Bears wound up posing in the front row Sunday with the heavy hitters.

A 20-10 victory over the Lions improved the Bears' record to 7-4 and lifted them into a first-place tie in the NFC Central with the Vikings, who were upset by the New York Jets at the Metrodome.

With their next three games on the road-at Arizona, Minnesota and Green Bay-the Bears have placed their postseason future in their own hands. The Vikings hold the postseason tiebreaker over the Bears by virtue of their 42-14 victory at Soldier Field in Week 3. The Bears can change that in the rematch in two weeks. The Packers (6-5) fell a game back with a 29-20 loss Sunday at Buffalo.

The Bears controlled the ball an astounding 44 minutes 12 seconds against the Lions, limiting the playing time of Detroit's league-leading rusher, Barry Sanders. Sanders rushed only 11 times for 42 yards.

"I don't know what level of frustration we're at, but it was definitely an uncomfortable feeling," said Sanders, who was slowed in his bid to reach the 2,000-yard mark.

The Lions fell to 5-6 and dug themselves a deep hole regarding a playoff berth.

"This was the worst," said Lions coach Wayne Fontes. "In all the years that I've coached, this is as frustrated as I've felt after a game."

Steve Walsh completed 25 of 31 passes for 185 yards and one touchdown as he improved to 6-0 as the Bears' starter.

"At one point, Steve was 14 of 16," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt. "You know, those high percentages . . . that's very similar to what Steve Young (of the 49ers) does. That's a key for us. Steve did a great job of making good decisions with some nice audibles."

The Bears won their third straight in front of only 55,035. There were 11,090 no-shows on a rainy, chilly day.

Playing without wideouts Curtis Conway (bruised thigh) and Tom Waddle (knee), the Bears still managed to move the ball efficiently on their second possession. A 16-play, 87-yard drive ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Lewis Tillman, who finished the day with a season-best 126 yards on 32 carries.

"I must commend the offensive line because they did a great job," said Tillman. "The offensive line, along with (fullbacks) Raymont (Harris) and Bob Christian, did a great job up front. We've got our destiny in our own hands."

Bennie Blades intercepted a Walsh pass intended for Greg McMurtry near midfield with 10:33 left in the second quarter. A 39-yard pass from Dave Krieg to Brett Perriman set up Detroit at the Bears' 10. After Sanders was held to a 1-yard gain, Krieg passed 9 yards to Herman Moore for the score.

Kevin Butler booted a 28-yard field goal with 1:10 left in the half to put the Bears on top 10-7, but the Lions went 58 yards in nine plays before settling for a 29-yard Jason Hanson field goal to tie the game with :06 left in the half.

"Words really couldn't express the emotion that was in that locker room at halftime," said Wannstedt. "Words are cheap. I know that. But then the guys go out and do it like that. It was just a great effort by the offense, defense and the kicking game."

The Bears controlled the ball 11:54 on a 20-play dive in the third period before settling for a 23-yard Butler field goal and a 13-10 lead. The Bears converted five first downs during the drive, including four of five on third down and one on fourth down.

"I have never been in a game when the other team held the ball for the entire third quarter," said Blades.

The game turned on a Chris Gardocki onside kick after Butler's second field goal. Gardocki dribbled the kick, which barely went the required 10 yards, and teammate John Mangum pounced on the ball while the startled Lions stood by.

"The (Lions) started to turn the other way," said Gardocki. "We had three guys trying for the ball, and two guys to keep (the Lions) off the ball. And I don't really remember any of them even being around the ball."

The Bears took over at their own 42. Six plays later, a 30-yard pass from Walsh to Jeff Graham on a wide-open crossing pattern gave the Bears their 20-10 winning margin.

"I guess the defensive back really figured we were going to come underneath again," said Graham. "I ran a patient route, and Steve was patient enough to let me get to the right depth and do the things I had to do to get open."

Krieg, starting in place of the injured Scott Mitchell, completed only 11 of 21 passes for 148 yards. He was sacked three times by Alonzo Spellman, Chris Zorich and Albert Fontenot.

"Our defense stepped it up, without a doubt," said Wannstedt. "There was pressure, but Krieg made some nice plays scrambling. I thought our defensive line had excellent pressure all day long. And that's a tough situation, because you're very scared to turn your defensive linemen loose and rush the passer when you've got a running back like Barry Sanders back there."

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