DENVER As the Bears lined up for a block attempt on Denver kicker Matt Praters 51-yard field goal in overtime, defensive tackle Henry Melton turned to safety Chris Conte in no small state of disbelief.
Birdman, Melton said, how did we ever get in this situation?
Melton may well have been speaking for the Bears season as well as Sundays 13-10 overtime loss to the Broncos. Just as he had from 59 yards with 2 seconds remaining to tie the game, Prater made his 51-yard kick, giving Denver its sixth straight victory, the Bears (7-6) their third straight loss, and their playoff hopes a possible death blow.
The defense, which had shut out Tim Tebow and the Broncos for 56 minutes, cracked and allowed 10 points over the final four minutes of regulation.
The offense twice had chances to win the game and failed, in the person of Marion Barber. The running back inexplicably stepped out of bounds after a carry with two minutes remaining, effectively giving the Broncos, who were by then out of time outs, 35 free seconds and a clock-stoppage.
The Broncos needed 50 seconds to drive for Praters tying field goal.
We have to know the situation, said coach Lovie Smith. In that situation we have to be able to keep the ball in bounds. Hell tell you that.
For Tebow, who turned himself around dramatically in the final quarter, the Barber blunder was an occasion for a different thought.
I might have thanked the Lord when he did that, Tebow said.
Barber, who had cost the Bears a touchdown in the Kansas City loss when he lined up improperly on what was a scoring pass to him, then compounded his mistake by fumbling the ball at the Denver 33 in overtime, well within winning-field-goal range for Robbie Gould.
That was turned into Praters second boot from 50-plus.
We just didnt finish, said linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Now it is the Bears who may be finished, however.
The loss, before a Sports Authority Field crowd of 75,513, was nothing short of devastating in a season that was slipping away from the Bears over the past two weeks, since Jay Cutlers thumb injury and compounded by Matt Fortes knee injury.
The Bears are now looking up at both the Falcons and Lions after having control of their wild-card destiny at 7-3.
The Detroit Lions defeated the Minnesota Vikings and the Atlanta Falcons slipped by the Carolina Panthers, results that gave the Bears two biggest wild-card rivals matching 8-5 records.
Only once (1979) in franchise history has a Bears team lost three straight games and advanced to the postseason. That team achieved the playoffs by virtue of winning its final three games for a 10-6 record.
All losses hurt. This one hurts, said linebacker Lance Briggs. Were getting closer to the end of the season. Weve got three games left theyre all must-win.
The Bears built a 10-0 lead through the end of the third quarter on a nine-yard touchdown run by Barber and 57-yard field goal by Robbie Gould. They appeared to have a win within their grasp before a collapse unlike many by the defense in the past couple of seasons.
Denver scored its first points of the game on a 10yard pass from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas with just over two minutes to play. Linebacker Nick Roach was able to gather in a bounding onsides kickoff.
The Bears were forced to punt, and Tebow and the Broncos, with help from the clock-stoppage on Barbers stepping out of bounds, had a chance for a winning score starting from their 20-yard line with 56 seconds to play.
Prater converted a 59-yard field field goal with two seconds remaining to tie a game in which the Broncos had never led.
Very special teams
Devin Hesters 26-yard punt return in the third quarter, twisting away from what was developing as solid coverage, set the Bears up at the Denver 42. The offense moved to a first-and-goal at the Broncos 9, from where Barber broke tackles and went in standing up with less than 6 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Those were the first points of the game and were followed by Gould converting the longest field goal in franchise history, a 57-yarder on the first snap of the fourth quarter.
A Julius Peppers second-quarter block of a 28-yard field goal try helped hold the Broncos scoreless in the first half.
The Bears did virtually nothing in a scoreless first half and the Broncos only slightly more as the two teams combined for 90 yards in the first quarter and 219 total for the half. The Bears had 84 total yards in the first half and was in Denvers end of the field for exactly one play in the entire first half.
Particularly disturbing for the Bears, the offense failed to convert on any of five third downs in the first half after an 0-for-11 effort in the loss to Kansas City.
After two three-and-outs, the defense created its own problems with a pair of major gaffes. The pass rush was non-existent on a third-and-16 to allow a 23-yard Tebow completion. And Lance Briggs was called for a late hit of Tebow to give Denver another first down.
The threat was ended with Charles Tillman made one of the more acrobatic interceptions of the season, going high for the catch of an apparent Tebow throwaway and twisting to get both feet down.
A possession later, Tebow converted a third-and-15 in the second quarter when containment broke down. Israel Idonije drew a roughing penalty for a low hit on Tebow on a third-and-8.
Despite four third-down conversions, the Bears avoided damage when Peppers and Israel Idonije blocked a short field goal midway through the second quarter.