All we know for sure about these Bears is that they are masochists.
What else can you make of a team that prefers a familiar bed of nails to a cozy cushion? What other explanation is there for a contradictory defense that excels by putting opponents in third-and-long situations, only to fall down on the job instead of clamping down?
A two-game lead in the NFC Central Division was in their hands and the Bears both fumbled and threw it away with five turnovers, shunning the luxury of running away from the pack. This does set up an entertaining showdown for first place next Sunday when the 6-3 Bears play the 5-4 Packers in Green Bay.
The Bears can take solace in knowing they are interesting even in defeat, finding ways to lose that are head-shaking and mind-numbing. Their 37-34 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Soldier Field didn't lack for drama and featured more twists and turns than Lake Shore Drive.
Point to the game sheet with eyes closed and, chances are, your finger would land on a turning point.
If Kevin Butler had made a 44-yard field goal with just under 4 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bears would have started to look like the Houdinis of the NFL, frequently escaping when they shouldn't and winning for a fifth straight time.
"We wouldn't have been happy winning," contended linebacker Vinson Smith, playing back an old record fans have heard much of the season from a Bears team that has lost twice by three points and won three times by four points or less. "But it should never happen like this. Just too many mistakes. And it was a total team effort. Missed kicks, missed tackles and missed catches."
Curtis Conway has made a difference all season, adding a 10th scoring catch Sunday that puts the wide receiver three away from the team record for a season and one short of tying the team record of seven straight games with a receiving touchdown.
But here the difference was in the four or five balls that clanged off his hands. He may have been sensing Steelers pressuring him and was certainly to blame for the last of Erik Kramer's three interceptions, letting the game spin away from the Bears on this one play.
Conway could have carried Butler into revenge range in the last minute of the fourth quarter if he had held on to a ball inside the Steelers' 30. Instead, the ball bounced from his reach and behind him, where cornerback Willie Williams made the interception.
Conway fought off another catchable ball on the first possession of overtime, a second-down play that could have carried the Bears to a first down and midfield. But the skids were already greased by then for the Bears to slide out of contention.
Norm Johnson buried the Bears with a 24-yard field goal on Pittsburgh's first drive of the extra period. Neil O'Donnell converted three more third downs, one by passing and two by rushing, hitting the most vulnerable area of the defense.
The Steelers made good on 57 percent of their third downs (12 for 21) and for the season the Bears have been unable to stop opponents 49 percent of the time on third down (65 for 133).
"We've tried everything," defensive coordinator Bob Slowik said. "Man defense, zone defense, three-man pass rush, four-man pass rush, five-man pass rush. We're still trying to find something that works, and if you want to draw up a play, I'll consider it."
Coach Dave Wannstedt wasted no words. "It's killing us," he said. "It's a variety of things, something we've already addressed, but we've got to find a way to get better at it."
The defense had its moments--a tipped pass by Alonzo Spellman resulting in a 2-yard scoring return of an interception by linebacker Barry Minter, and five sacks stretching the team total to 23 for the season--but these Bears live and die by their offense. And just as in their 34-28 loss to St. Louis, turnovers by the offense--three interceptions and two fumbles--helped turned the tide.
Kramer, though disappointed, was far from intimidated.
"We're not reeling after this loss," he said after throwing for three touchdowns to give him 21 for the season, seven short of Sid Luckman's 1943 Bears record of 28. "Hopefully we'll take it in stride.
"We didn't play our best game. But, in retrospect, with five turnovers you should get blown out. If we won, no one would have thought we should have."
Some have questioned whether the Bears are a legitimate 6-3 team, let alone a team that was on the verge of being 7-2.
Perhaps the most worrisome sidelight of Sunday's game was injuries to key people. Donnell Woolford bruised his right hip early in an end-zone play when a helmet caught him. He didn't return, and isn't positive that he can play against the Packers. Offensive tackle Andy Heck pulled a left hamstring. Around the league at the midway point of the season, Heck and Woolford were the two Bears mentioned most on the Pro Bowl lists.
Safety Marty Carter suffered a concussion and linebacker Ron Cox was sidelined by a virus in his ear that made him dizzy. The Bears have been relatively healthy until now.
"We've got to keep rising to the occasion," said safety Mark Carrier, the victim of a phantom spearing penalty that helped lead the Steelers to one touchdown. "I know I didn't spear the guy, but we've got to respond no matter what."
The Bears didn't respond in the fourth quarter, allowing two touchdowns and letting the Steelers hold a possession edge of 8:34 to 6:26.
"So many plays could have made a difference," said defensive lineman Carl Simpson, a positive force in his switch from tackle to right end in place of injured starter Al Fontenot.
Anthony Marshall, whose athleticism played a major role in this game, nonetheless was left to remember his soft coverage on Ernie Mills on the 11-yard touchdown that tied the score 34-34 with 1:06 remaining in regulation.
"I got beat," Marshall said. "I could have made a difference and I didn't. I've got to evaluate myself."
So do the Bears, before the next thing that slips from their grasp is first place in the division.
steelers 37, bears 34 (OT)
Living on, falling off edge
Bears lose to Steelers in OT
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