Living the low life

Tribune staff reporter

They made a contest of it. On a nationally televised Sunday night with their peers presumably watching, it seemed that was all the Bears were capable of doing.

Avoid colossal embarrassment. Perhaps regain some lost respectability. But win? Against an undefeated Minnesota Vikings team that has improved as sharply since the season opener as the Bears have faltered?

That was too tall an order for a team that did not know how to define itself after a three-point loss to Minnesota on Sept. 3, but by now must accept its lot. In the NFL pecking order, the Vikings, 28-16 winners Sunday night at Soldier Field, remain entrenched in the upper echelon at 6-0 while the Bears flounder at 1-6.

"At this point, I'd be happy with an ugly win," said defensive tackle Mike Wells. "Just something."

Ray McElroy's recovery of a fumbled punt return by the Vikings gave the Bears the ball at the Minnesota 32-yard line and revived their hope with their deficit at 28-16 with 7 minutes 42 seconds left. But these Bears just don't seem capable of a come-from-behind victory.

And indeed they came up short, Macey Brooks committing his second offensive-interference penalty of the night, followed by two straight incompletions by Cade McNown.

"We didn't score enough," said Bears coach Dick Jauron. "We didn't keep them off the field enough and we didn't make enough plays."

That would about cover it.

Committed to the run from the outset, the Bears gave James Allen the ball often. He finished with 71 yards in 22 carries and scored the first rushing touchdown by a Bears running back this season with his 6-yard burst to open the fourth quarter, drawing the Bears within 21-16. McNown, prompting boos once again with errant passes, put together his most impressive drive leading to Allen's touchdown run, completing 4-of-6 passes for 69 yards

"It felt similar to the last game," McNown said of the season-opening loss to Minnesota. "We outhit and outhustled and moved the ball on them. We did a lot of great things. We just weren't able to capitalize at crucial moments. We need to keep plugging. I believe we're going to pull through this."

The Bears' defense, led by feisty rookie middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and his two first-half sacks, did not have to worry about Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper running over them like he did in the season opener. Culpepper appears all grown up, taking his time in the pocket and finishing 15-of-26 for 198 yards and three touchdown passes.

McNown, whom the Bears drafted instead of Culpepper, completed 19-of-33 for 210 yards and one touchdown.

Robert Smith, who passed Chuck Foreman to become the Vikings' all-time leading rusher Sunday, also kept up his abuse of the Bears on the ground, gaining 170 yards in 23 carries. And the Vikings demonstrated what it means to have a balanced offense, with Cris Carter and Randy Moss combining for 11 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

Still, the Bears' defense held the Vikings without a score on their first four offensive series. And Urlacher's fifth consecutive game with at least one sack tied former Colt Duane Bickett for the third-longest streak by a rookie.

"We believed we could shut them down all day; it's the mentality you have to have," said Wells. "Momentum swings are going to happen in the NFL, but we lost momentum at one point and that's the thing our team has problems with.

"We're soft. We need to pour it on when we have a lead. We need to learn how to win, and we need to learn quick."

The Bears took a 6-0 lead on their second drive of the game when McNown hit rookie Dez White with a quick pass on the Bears' old standby slip screen for a 25-yard touchdown. But Brent Bartholomew fumbled the snap on the extra-point attempt.

Two possessions later, the McNown-to-Marcus Robinson connection cooked with completions of 23 and 42 yards to give the Bears a first-and-goal from the 6-yard line. But an apparent 4-yard touchdown pass two plays later to tight end Kaseem Sinceno was negated when Sinceno was flagged for going out of bounds and coming back in again, and they had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by Paul Edinger.

The shift in momentum was subtle and yet sudden.

The Bears enjoyed their 9-0 lead for just 23 seconds before Smith eluded Mike Brown and Khari Samuel, among other Bears, busting a 72-yard run for a touchdown.

Glyn Milburn decided to return the ensuing kickoff from 7 yards deep in the end zone, making it only to the 14-yard line.

After the drive fizzled at the 17, Minnesota's Troy Walters returned a Bartholomew punt 25 yards to the Bears' 33. From there, an 18-yard run by Smith moved the Vikings into scoring position.

Two plays later, on third-and-1 from the 21, Culpepper changed plays at the line, then followed with a perfectly lofted pass over Bears corner Jerry Azumah to Carter for Carter's first touchdown of the season and a 14-9 Minnesota lead.

Azumah also was victimized on the lone score of the third quarter, a 24-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Hatchette for a 21-9 lead.

The postgame injury report listed eight Bears, including McNown with a sprained left ankle. Tackle James Williams' thigh injury and guard Chris Villarrial's strained groin depleted the offensive line, as both players were out for extended periods.

"It just gets tougher," said Wells. "Guys got hurt today and it seems we have that problem every week. Not only are we fighting the battle of football, we're fighting the battle of attrition."

"There's just not much to say," shrugged cornerback Thomas Smith. "We're all competing. It's just not working out right now."

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