Game-saving kick—at least

Tribune staff reporter

Up in the air it hung—the ball and possibly Dick Jauron's future.

Jauron later said he didn't think anybody had an idea how good a kick Paul Edinger's game-winning 45-yard field goal into the teeth of a 22-m.p.h. wind Sunday at Soldier Field really was. Maybe the Bears' coach won't find out just how good himself until after the season during his job evaluation.

But Edinger said he knew it was good immediately, even before the ball sailed over the crossbar in the south end zone for the winning points in the Bears' 27-24 victory over the Washington Redskins that Jauron needed to preserve hope of keeping his job. That explains why Edinger started hopping with joy shortly after his follow-through, without any fear he would be dancing alone.

"When I saw it almost there, I was celebrating in front of everybody else," Edinger said.

Forgive Bears fans for not starting the party until seeing both officials hoist their arms toward the sky.

Earlier, Edinger missed field-goal attempts from 30 and 33 yards into the same wind, and skeptics started to wonder whether it would be Edinger's right leg that ultimately helped boot Jauron out of town.

The Redskins even called a timeout with 10 seconds left so Edinger might consider the gravity of the situation along with the wind speed. Not that it worked.

"I didn't even realize they called time out," Edinger said. "I just thought, 'You can't get down on yourself.' I just stayed in there and said, 'We're going to get to .500."'

Thanks to Edinger's second game-winning field goal of the season and the most dominant offensive performance of the season, the Bears (7-8) still have that chance. They will travel to AFC West titlist Kansas City for the season finale on Sunday encouraged by winning four of the last five and inspired by the chance to save Jauron's job.

"I came in with these [coaches in 1999], so I would love to see them come back," wide receiver Marty Booker said. "I was always told it's how you finish, and we're finishing pretty good. We've got a good home record (6-2), and we've jelled together and become a family. We [had to] hang around each other awhile to get a feel for one another because we had a lot of young guys, but we stuck together."

The Bears beat the Redskins by finally sticking to their game plan in the second half.

Running back Anthony Thomas had only eight carries at halftime, neglect best illustrated in the first quarter, when the Bears ran three straight plays from the Redskins' 1-yard line without handing him the ball. They had to settle for a 19-yard Edinger field goal.

"Hindsight is always 20-20, [and] given the result, we should have given him the ball three times in a row," Jauron said. "We knew that we didn't get the ball in Train's hands enough in the first half."

A third quarter in which the Bears controlled the ball for 13 minutes 18 seconds changed that.

The Redskins ran only four offensive plays in the quarter as the Bears finally patented the formula for winning with which they had been experimenting all season. Two long scoring drives resulted: a 13-play, 68-yard march that culminated with an 11-yard scoring pass from Rex Grossman to Justin Gage and a 12-play, 81-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard TD run by Thomas.

Thomas carried 13 times in those two series and ended the day carrying 32 times for 141 yards. "That's what I want," said Thomas, quick to praise his offensive line, which welcomed back starting right guard Chris Villarrial.

The running attack benefited from a passing game that has evolved, under Grossman, into one that thinks in big chunks rather than small bites. The 59-yard touchdown pass to Booker down the right sideline over badly beaten All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey on the Bears' fifth play from scrimmage, for example, made the Redskins' defense respect the long ball in ways previous Bears opponents never had to consider.

"Once you have some fear that you'll go over the top, it loosens thing up and makes calling a defensive game that much harder," Jauron said.

The Bears amassing a season-high yardage total of 429 as well as possessing the ball for a season-high 37 minutes 54 seconds proved just how hard. After shaking off the day's second drive, which included a botched snap and his first career interception within three plays, Grossman settled down to complete 19-of-32 passes for 249 yards and two TDs.

"I totally disregarded the whole [mistake-prone] drive," Grossman said. "The next play to [Booker] definitely calmed us down and put us in the right mind-set for the rest of the game."

More important, the Bears appear to be gaining an offensive identity as they develop their rookie quarterback. It may have taken 15 games, but it seems like the Bears' newly emboldened passing game complements the running game the way they always envisioned.

"We knew going in we just wanted to drop back and let it rip, no matter what happened to get some of the stuff that was going on out of [Grossman's] system," offensive coordinator John Shoop said.

Grossman felt the added anxiety of playing in front of the man he credits with making him as NFL-ready as he is, Redskins coach Steve Spurrier. While Grossman called it "weird," seeing the former Florida coach on the opposite sideline, Bears defensive players considered it downright scary.

Calling plays as if he were drawing them in the grass, Spurrier and the Redskins kept the Bears off balance after scoring on a double pass in the first quarter. Quarterback Tim Hasselbeck threw a lateral to Rod Gardner, who hit Chad Morton across the field with a 36-yard TD pass.

Late in the second quarter, the Redskins appeared to score on a reverse pass from Gardner to Hasselbeck that was ruled incomplete despite replays showing Hasselbeck cradling the ball. A 14-yard TD reception by Laveranues Coles on the next play made it a moot point anyway, and the message of misdirection had been sent.

"It was kind of like, 'OK, what are you going to do next? How many do you have in your playbook?"' Bears defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said.

Added defensive coordinator Greg Blache: "It unsettled our guys and allowed some of the other things. You [end up] looking instead of playing."

With 5:29 left and the Redskins facing fourth-and-1 from their own 43, Blache's defense was playing for its life.

The Redskins were driving, the game was tied 24-24 and momentum was wearing maroon and gold. Then Washington left guard Derrick Dockery committed a false start on his team's biggest play of the game, and Washington had to punt the ball back to the Bears to set up the final, dramatic drive.

Thirteen plays later, despite the Bears managing the clock like a procrastinator, Edinger sent the crowd of 61,719 home for the holidays in a festive mood.

"Christmas dinner is going to taste delightful [now], and we could be going to McDonald's," Blache said. "This was a huge win, [a] crazy game, and it was time for us to win one of those."

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