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No Bronco busting for Bears
If a little reason and a lot of hindsight were telling the Bears they should somehow feel good about nearly beating the best team in football, solid logic was telling them otherwise.
Because despite the injuries and inferior record, the road uniforms and the unforgiving altitude, the Bears and the Denver Broncos were simply two football teams lined up on opposite sides of the 1-yard line with four downs and 40 seconds remaining Sunday afternoon.
And after three-plus hours of silly mistakes and courageous redemption, of running over the best rushing defense in football and holding the best runner in check, of seemingly overcoming what they thought were a series of questionable calls, the Bears were still left with another punch to the midsection and the emptiness of another loss.
"To waste this kind of effort just tears your guts out," coach Dave Wannstedt said of his team's 17-12 loss. And a waste is precisely what it was as they drove 79 yards on 12 plays in the final 2:56 to set up a seemingly golden game-winning opportunity at the Denver 1-yard line.
The Bears had already established, with a dominating third-quarter performance led by Raymont Harris' 51 yards on 10 carries, that they could run the ball on the Broncos. They proved that they could mount drives, as evidenced by their 17 second-half first downs and 11 1/2-minute differential in possession.
The Bears were clearly not intimidated by the Broncos, and by all appearances, they had overcome their mistakes--the interceptions and penalties, even the one glaring call, a fumble by Rashaan Salaam, they thought was clearly wrong.
"We were upbeat, we were moving the ball, we knew, if we score here, we win," said offensive tackle Andy Heck.
But on four successive plays, hopes for a season rebirth were dealt a staggering blow, with--in order--a 1-yard loss up the middle by Harris, a 2-yard loss on a pitch left to Harris, an incomplete pass off the outstretched hands of defensive tackle-turned eligible receiver Jim Flanigan and an incomplete pass by Dave Krieg to Curtis Conway in the end zone.
When it was over, the pass to a wide-open Flanigan appeared most glaring. "I had the chance to make the catch," he said. "It was a good throw. I got out in the flat and it just went through my hands. That's all there was to it. I don't think I looked away from it, I just missed the catch, plain and simple. . . . It's heartbreaking. I feel like I let the team down. The offense put their trust in me."
Krieg was sympathetic. "He's really got good hands. The ball was kind of high," he said. "For a lineman, you like to keep it a little bit lower. But that's not the reason we lost the game. He made a good try and those kinds of things happen."
The series at the goal line might not have been needed if Denver cornerback Randy Hilliard had not interfered with Michael Timpson in the end zone, breaking up a probable touchdown pass and giving the Bears the ball at the 1.
At halftime, the Bears (4-6) had scored only on a 35-yard field goal by Jeff Jaeger and had to be happy they were still in the game with the Broncos having racked up 177 yards in total offense.
Instead, it was 14-3 in Denver's favor.
But the best was yet to come for the Bears, who kept Elway and Terrell Davis off the field for all but 2:31 of the third quarter, scoring on an 11-yard pass play from Krieg to Conway.
A missed two-point conversion left the Bears within 14-9 when a perfect on-side kick gave them the ball again at their 44-yard line. But their momentum was promptly squashed when officials ruled that Salaam had fumbled on a second and 8 from the Broncos' 11.
Replays seemed to indicate and Salaam naturally concurred that the ground forced the turnover. "I thought they were going to say the ball was dead," he said. "But I guess home field rules."
The Broncos took advantage, marching back, thanks in large part to a 51-yard pass from Elway to tight end Shannon Sharpe. They scored on a 24-yard field goal by Jason Elam, two minutes into the fourth quarter.
Those were the only points for the Broncos in the second half, which seemed amazing considering the Bears were playing for the first time without middle linebacker Bryan Cox, out for the season following thumb surgery.
And even that field goal would not have come off if Bears rookie Walt Harris had not been called for roughing Elam on a missed 35-yarder. The penalty gave the Broncos a first down at the 8.
But a stubborn Bears defense, some timely drops by Broncos receivers (including one by Rod Smith in the end zone in the same drive) and the clock-eating Bears offense combined to set up the dramatic finish.
Jaeger's second field goal of the day, this one from 48 yards on the Bears' next drive, put them within striking distance.
Perhaps most galling when it was over was the Bears' ultimate failure in light of a superb running game.
For the second week in a row, Harris rushed for more than 100 yards, this time 112 on 23 carries. Salaam was overshadowed, but nonetheless ran well, gaining 53 yards on 11 carries.
But as Heck pointed out, "It feels good to be able to run the ball well. It feels better to put points on the board, and that's where we came up short."
In the end, the Bears were left searching for words to describe what many of them called the worst loss they could remember.
It's another disappointment in a season already full of them. Is this the worst feeling he has had as Bears coach, Wannstedt was asked.
"In a long time," he replied.