EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Pity Vinson Smith.
"We finally win a game, or at least that's what they tell me, and I can't even remember it," the Bears linebacker lamented Sunday as he swayed to the bus.
A concussion had Smith reeling after the game. But then Smith didn't miss anything new, to hear quarterback Erik Kramer tell it. Leave it to the Bears to make nail-biting finishes just a touch boring by making them so commonplace.
All of their outcomes have been by a touchdown or less since the Bears caught a rare breeze, 25-6, at Tampa Bay in the third game of the season. The tension is becoming a drag as the playoffs near.
"It seems like every game goes down to the wire, and we have to pick up our level of play," said Kramer, who wasn't convinced the Bears are back on the playoffs track after they squeezed past the New York Giants 27-24 on Kevin Butler's 37-yard field goal with 7 seconds left.
After all, Dallas spanked the sluggish Giants 35-0 and San Francisco dismissed them 20-6 this season, teams the Bears compare themselves to in the NFC.
So Kramer doesn't expect Chicago fans to be excited simply because the Bears ended a three-game losing streak. Kramer realizes the Bears aren't ready for the Cowboys, the 49ers or the playoffs in any size or shape.
"We have to forget about the playoffs because we aren't playing well enough as a team to focus on anything but Detroit," he said, looking to the Bears' next road opponent a week from Monday. "I'm kind of tempering my enthusiasm for winning this game because we're not winning in a fashion to start thinking about the playoffs yet."
Even the anointed hero of the moment ran from the spotlight. Butler, who refused to talk to the Chicago media last week, exited the dressing room before they were permitted entrance and decided not to discuss his personal salvation here.
His 27-yard miss in the second quarter was Butler's fourth failure in his last five field-goal attempts, one a block, and had him on the hot seat. He broke out of this slump with a 34-yarder in the third quarter, and stomped on it with that game-winner.
"We could be 9-2 if we did the little things right like we did them today," Mark Carrier said. "Enough of that. We're not 9-2. But this could be a big turnaround for us. It could."
Just winning was an important Band-Aid, saving them from being a .500 team. At 7-5, the Bears stay one game behind the Central Division-leading Green Bay Packers. But keep the oxygen masks at hand.
A loss to the Lions would give Detroit a sweep of the season series and push the Bears back to living on the edge for the playoffs. Don't expect any change the rest of the season, coach Dave Wannstedt cautioned about his pins-and-needles bunch.
"It hasn't come easy all year, and it won't," he said. "What you see is what you get. People may not like it, but that's where we are at as a team.
"With (strong safety) Marty Carter out at the end (with a sprained ankle), we're literally drawing things up on the board. You got to appreciate what's going on on the sidelines. We've got Anthony Marshall playing (for Carter), Pat Eilers and Keshon Johnson."
Eilers and Johnson are mostly special-teams players. But they were on the field on fourth-and-4 from the Bears' 32 when Dave Brown's pass was knocked away by Johnson to decide the game.
Giants coach Dan Reeves can expect to receive a kicking in the New York media for passing up the chance for a winning field goal from 49 yards to set up the Bears' winning drive.
"We needed about five more yards with the wind in our face," said Reeves, whose reluctance to give Brad Daluiso the attempt was understandable considering that Daluiso missed a 48-yarder indoors in Seattle just three games back when he could have won the game. "We were either going to try to pin them down deeper or go for it."
This drive wasn't the only time the Bears' defense rallied to stop the Giants in difficult circumstances. In the third quarter, with a first down at the Bear 5, Alonzo Spellman stopped Rodney Hampton for no gain, Jeremy Lincoln knocked the ball away from Thomas Lewis in the end zone and Brown tossed a pass behind his intended receiver. The Giants had to settle for Daluiso's 22-yard field goal.
"My biggest problem was calling Anthony `Marty' when Marty was out hurt," free safety Carrier joked. "But, seriously, if we didn't have trust in guys like that (Eilers, Johnson and Marshall) then they wouldn't be here."
Before the end, the Bears led twice, 7-0 when wide receiver Michael Timpson ran left end for a 6-yard touchdown and 24-17 with 11:16 to go when Timpson used every inch of the right end zone to catch a 9-yard touchdown pass from Kramer.
But the Bears' defense couldn't hold at this point. Brown sustained a drive with an 11-yard completion on third-and-10, and Hampton had runs of 18 and 10 yards en route to a 2-yard score that tied the game at 24.
"It needs to be said," Wannstedt bleated emotionally, "these guys are playing as hard as they can. But seven wins gets us nothing. They've got to stay together."
He sounded like the captain of a ship taking in water and wondering how fast his crew can keep bailing to keep it afloat.