Sweeps month continued Sunday for the Bears.
And like any successful made-for-TV drama, they kept their audience on the edge of their seats until the tense conclusion. Kevin Butler booted a 27-yard field goal with 6 minutes 49 seconds left in overtime as the Bears notched their fourth straight win, beating the Arizona Cardinals 19-16 in front of 65,922 fans, many current or former Chicagoans.
The Bears are 6-0 on the road in the last two Novembers under coach Dave Wannstedt. But none was bigger than Sunday's victory, which vaulted the Bears (8-4) into sole possession of the NFC Central Division lead.
"It feels great," said Wannstedt. "But we still have four games left. And we play in a couple of days."
His players echoed the sentiments. "Getting our eighth win was big," said safety Mark Carrier. "It felt good, but it doesn't mean anything if we don't keep it going."
The Bears travel to Minnesota for a Thursday night engagement that could determine the division champion. The Vikings (7-5) were upset 20-17 in overtime Sunday by last-place Tampa Bay.
"In my mind, and I think in this team's mind, we are not in first place until we beat Minnesota," said Bears quarterback Steve Walsh. "The records don't show it right now. But we have to go up there and beat Minnesota."
The Bears may have a game edge, but Minnesota, by virtue of winning the first game between the two teams, would hold the tiebreaker if it beats the Bears again Thursday.
The Bears currently rank third among the six playoff slots available in the NFC. If the playoffs were to be held now, the Bears, with the worst record among division leaders, would host the wild-card team with the worst record on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.
"Today just magnifies the point that we are a team," said Wannstedt. "The effort that those guys put out-offense, defense and special teams."
Walsh improved to 7-0 as a starter this season, completing 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown. He was intercepted twice, but he came through with the biggest play in overtime when he hooked up with wide receiver Jeff Graham on a third-down, 44-yard pass play that set up Butler's winning kick.
Graham enjoyed his best day as a Bear by catching eight passes for 154 yards, including one for 50 yards.
"I'm happy for him," said Wannstedt. "He came here with the personal thing with his brother (who died of cancer) over the summer. He was traded (from Pittsburgh), and he has battled through a lot of things. The guy is playing outstanding football."
The Bears controlled the ball 38 minutes 12 seconds and got 77 yards rushing from tailback Lewis Tillman. Rookie fullback Raymont Harris added 54 yards on 13 carries. The Bears converted seven of 16 third-down plays and their only fourth-down try.
"The Bears will get a lot of mileage out of a hard-fought win like this," said Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan.
The Bears led 10-3 at halftime. Walsh passed 2 yards to tight end Ryan Wetnight for the Bears' only touchdown with :36 left in the first period. The pass was tipped by linebacker Seth Joyner and the ball landed in Wetnight's hands after he had fallen on his back in the end zone.
"I have never caught one quite like that before," said Wetnight.
The Cardinals (5-7) answered with a 49-yard field goal by Greg Davis. Butler countered with a 35-yarder right before the half.
Butler talked Wannstedt into attempting a 52-yard field goal early in the third quarter. The kick barely cleared the crossbar and gave the Bears a 13-3 advantage.
The teams exchanged field goals later in the third period: Davis from 22 yards and Butler from 31 to make it 16-6 Bears.
The Bears appeared in charge at that point. But a Walsh pass was tipped at the line by Keith McCants, who caught the deflection and raced 46 yards into the end zone.
Davis boomed a 47-yard field goal with :58 left in regulation to tie the game at 16. His ensuing squib kickoff caromed off the chest and hands of Bears fullback Bob Christian, and Terry Irving recovered what was in effect an onside kick.
"(Davis) looked at me and I thought he was just going to go that way with the kick," said Christian. "It kind of bounced up and caught me in the midsection. It's just fortunate that we came back and won. I'm probably the happiest guy on the team that we won."
The Cardinals could not capitalize on that opportunity, however.
Arizona won the coin toss in overtime and Chuck Levy returned Chris Gardocki's kickoff 29 yards to midfield.
The drive stalled at the Bears' 38, where Ryan elected to punt on fourth down instead of attempting a 55-yard field goal.
Jeff Feagles' punt sailed into the end zone, giving the Bears the ball on their 20.
On a third and 7 from their own 35, Walsh passed 44 yards to Graham over the middle to the Cardinals' 21. Graham beat cornerback Lorenzo Lynch and safety Terry Hoage on the play.
"It was a man-to-man situation," said Walsh. "They were supposed to have a free safety in the middle, and when I looked, (Hoage) broke hard. So I went back to Jeff in the middle."
Three plays later, the Bears set up for a 32-yard field-goal attempt, but the Cardinals jumped offsides to move the ball 5 yards closer. From 27 yards away, Butler delivered his second game-winning boot of the season.
"We got the ball on the right hash mark, and somebody said: `Get the ball back in the middle of the field,' " said Wannstedt. "So I tell Ron (Turner, offensive coordinator) to run a play to the middle of the field. So just as we hand the ball off to the left (to Tillman), `Butthead' walks over to me and says: `We're going to have the ball on the right hash, aren't we?'
"I said: No, no . . ."
After the Bears, who have not won a road game in December since 1987, face the Vikings, they play at Green Bay on Dec. 11 before winding up at home against the Los Angeles Rams and New England.
"I know there has been a lot of talk about the talent on this football team," said Wannstedt. "You don't talk about talent on paper. I mean, it's what are you doing when the ball is snapped. Our guys rise up and play at a level that is necessary to win."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun