By K.C. Johnson
Tribune staff reporter
9:00 PM PST, December 25, 2005
They had plenty to ponder.
The Bears' 24-17 victory clinched their first division title since 2001, guaranteed a first-round bye and a home playoff game on Jan. 14 or 15, finished a season sweep of the Packers for the first time in 14 years and ended Green Bay's three-year stranglehold on the division title.
"And now I get to go celebrate with my teammates," Kreutz said before running off for the locker room.
That's the kind of day Sunday was for the Bears, one where every bit of good news seemed to bring more, and most every move headed for a positive conclusion.
The biggest came when coaches and players donned hats and T-shirts that celebrated the present"2005 NFC North Champions"while teasing the future in a reference to Super Bowl XL. A happy but not entirely raucous locker room chose to talk mostly about the latter.
"We're excited about it, but at the same time, there's work to be done," said safety Mike Brown, idle Sunday but still a go-to voice. "Our main goal is to be champs, man, the real champs. This is a stop along the way. We're going to make a run."
With Rex Grossman directing an offense that posted its most yards in seven weeks, anything seems possible.
Making his first start since Sept. 26, 2004, Grossman finished 11-for-23 for 166 yards and one touchdown with one interception. Grossman's presence helped force Green Bay to drop an extra defender outside the box, which Thomas Jones exploited for 105 yards on 25 carries.
And the Bears converted 38 percent of their third downs, 11 percent higher than their season average.
"Kyle Orton is our MVP for the way he played," Kreutz said. "But Rex is a veteran and our starter. I think everyone saw why today. He's a great quarterback."
Defensively, the tackling looked shoddy early and the Bears surrendered 365 yards, not to mention some late Brett Favre magic. But they also delivered two interceptions from Chris Harris, one from Charles Tillman and one from Lance Briggs, which he returned 10 yards for their fourth defensive touchdown.
"The turnovers were big," coach Lovie Smith said.
Briggs' interception and Harris' second pick were the biggest.
The former gave the Bears a seemingly commanding 24-7 lead with 4 minutes 1 second left in the third quarter.
The latter came on the game's final play, after Favre had hit Donald Driver for 56 yards to the Bears' 35 and one touchdown separated the teams. Tank Johnson and Alex Brown sacked Favre on back-to-back plays before Harris' pick.
Antonio Chatman had awakened the crowd of 69,757, featuring plenty of vocal Bears fans, with an electrifying 85-yard punt return with 7:54 to play.
After a Bears possession fizzled, Favre marched Green Bay from its 28 to first-and-goal at the Bears' 8. The league's No. 1 red-zone defense came up big, holding Green Bay to Ryan Longwell's 26-yard field goal with 1:54 remaining.
Longwell had missed earlier from 38 and 39 yards.
Such a dramatic finish seemed unlikely early, especially when the Bears did something they've done just twice this season. They scored on their opening possession.
Grossman's 12-yard bullet to Muhsin Muhammad on third-and-goal capped a 10-play, 68-yard drive on which Grossman went 5-for-6 for 65 yards. His only incompletion came on a slight overthrow of Bernard Berrian, who ran a fly pattern on the Bears' first snap.
Grossman hit Berrian for 21 yards to convert a third down, Justin Gage for 8 yards for another first down and Muhammad for 20. So much for establishing the run.
"We saw on tape that their safeties come down low for run support," Grossman said.
Green Bay responded on its ensuing possession, marching 84 yards on 15 plays on an impressive drive capped by former Northwestern star Noah Herron's first career touchdown.
The Packers appeared to score on a 1-yard pass to tackle Mark Tauscher, prompting one of the more entertaining Lambeau leaps in history. But right guard Grey Ruegamer was whistled for holding, forcing a third-and-goal from the 11.
Mike Green picked off Favre on Harris' deflection, but Harris was called for interfering with Driver.
The Bears needed just three plays and 62 seconds to make Green Bay pay for Longwell's first miss.
Grossman hit Berrian, who beat Ahmad Carroll, for a season-high-tying 54 yards on first down and absorbed a late hit from Michael Montgomery that gave the Bears first-and-goal from the 9.
Jones' 2-yard scoring run made it 14-7 with 5:05 remaining before halftime.
Robbie Gould added a career-high 45-yard field goal early in the third quarter.
Few envisioned this success when the Bears talked a good game during training camp and, especially, after they fell to 1-3 with an Oct. 9 collapse in Cleveland."We saw good players at all positions," Smith said. "We liked the coaching staff that we had. We thought it was our time. We knew what kind of character we had in our locker room. That normally adds up to wins."
In the franchise's 85-year history, the Bears never had played on Christmas. On a day full of gifts, they remain focused on the biggest present of all.
"We want to win the Super Bowl," Alex Brown said. "Everything else is second. And nobody wants to finish second."
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