Banged up? Bang-up job

Tribune staff reporter

They are 3-2 and kings of the universe. A real team with serious goals, an agenda and an attitude.

They are one victory short of their season total for each of the last two seasons, but you'd never know it. Never guess that this was the same team that had its ego handed to it the last time it played here.

The Bears won't let you believe this was an upset, that marching into this giant impersonation of the EPCOT ball against last season's NFL darlings and waltzing out with a 24-22 victory was not supposed to happen.

The Bears defeating the Vikings in Minnesota? All part of their new image. The one that has them acting like they've been there before even though they haven't for some time now.

This was, in fact, the first Central Division road victory for the Bears in their last 10 tries, their first victory in the Metrodome since 1996. In the process, they may have lost a starting quarterback and a placekicker, and banged up a couple of linebackers as well as their top receiver.

But you'd never know it.

With every victory in Dick Jauron's first season as head coach, they distance themselves from the past. From timid play-calling and a playing-not-to-lose philosophy, and from the rest of the world as well.

"We're always underdogs, we always stink, we're this or that and I think we're just getting a better attitude, that it's all about us, and we don't care what people say," said tackle Mike Wells. "We're going to do what we do, and if people respect us, good. If they don't, who cares? We're a good team, we're a good group of guys, and something special potentially could happen here.

"As long as we believe in each other and play for each other and don't worry about every-thing all around us that could distract us, we're going to be fine."

Hey, whatever works. It is simply hard to maintain that sort of cocoon when everything all around that could potentially distract you happens to be a packed stadium of screaming Vikings fans. The only remedy, of course, is to somehow shut them up.

"It quiets the crowd if the offense can make plays," said linebacker Barry Minter. "But if you do something big on defense, fans really sit on their hands."

The Bears' defense accomplished that with a steady stream of turnovers--five in all--four sacks and a bend-but-don't-break clinic. The Vikings gained 445 yards, but were held to five Gary Anderson field goals and one consolation touchdown with two seconds left.

Corners Tom Carter and Terry Cousin had an interception apiece in taking advantage of the consistent pressure on Randall Cunningham, who completed 25 of 47 passes for 309 yards and three interceptions and left the field to boos.

But the Bears linebackers loomed largest with Barry Minter and Rico McDonald forcing a fumble apiece, Sean Harris recovering McDonald's force in the end zone for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead, and Khari Samuel recovering Minter's to kill a Vikings drive at the Bears 25-yard-line at 10:14 of the fourth quarter.

All Minter did after that was essentially seal the victory with an interception off a Clyde Simmons deflection, and a 32-yard return to the 50 with 3:08 left and the Bears leading 24-15.

"The Vikings were ready for us," said Jim Flanigan, who had two sacks. "We really didn't do anything different than we did in the first of couple games. But we're a different defensive line and this is the first time they saw us, so maybe we did catch them by surprise a little bit. I think they gained a little respect for us."

The Bears missed several opportunities in the second quarter--a dropped interception by Frankie Smith, two missed field goals by Jeff Jaeger from 49 and 48 yards and four dropped passes combined by Curtis Conway, Bobby Engram and Marcus Robinson. Still, the Vikings, leading 9-7, seemed only to be biding their time.

"We're going to be in every game," said Engram, "but to win those close ones, we have to be a little more consistent throughout the course of the game."

Bears receivers regained their composure quickly enough. After allowing a potential 30-yard touchdown pass go through his hands in the end zone, Conway scored on a 30-yarder from Shane Matthews on the next possession, zigzagging his way past three Vikings in the final 10 yards to give the Bears a lead they did not relinquish.

Conway missed much of the second half with a sprained ankle, while defensively McDonald missed the entire second half with a bruised thigh and Harris part of the half with a sprained ankle. But the Bears still managed to establish control early in the third quarter--reversing an early-season trend--when Carter intercepted a Cunningham pass intended for Randy Moss at the Bears 1-yard line on the Vikings' first series of the second half.

The Bears took over on their 37 after a 36-yard return by Carter, and Matthews marched them 63 yards in nine plays, culminating with a quick 3-yard slant to Robinson to give them a 21-12 lead. It was Robinson's best day as a pro--eight catches for 90 yards, six for 70 yards in the second half.

But the big blow to the Bears in the second half was the loss of Matthews after a 6-yard scramble on the second play of the fourth quarter. He left with 19-of-28 passing for 184 yards, two touchdowns and a pulled right hamstring of unknown severity, leaving, for now anyway, the future of the Bears to Cade McNown.

McNown, whose biggest impact the rest of the way was a 42-yard completion to Robinson, which led to Jaeger's third miss of the day, from 37 yards, and a 13-yard scramble on third-and-10 from midfield just before the 2-minute warning, doesn't pretend to be a finished product.

"There's a reason Shane is the starter," said McNown, who was 9 of 14 for 97 yards. "He's doing what they want him to do, and I'm still learning. The reason I came in was because he got hurt, not because all of a sudden I proved myself to be much better than he was."

And the Bears will continue to amble along, stoic as can be, attempting to gradually rejoin the ranks of NFL contenders and actually in the early division mix.

"A lot of people don't believe in us, but we believe in each other," Conway said. "We know what we've got in this room right here, and if we play well for 60 minutes and play mistake-free, we know we can go in and compete with anybody. We're all in it together, and that's really helping us."

Tackle James Williams said that attitude is a change from the last few years. "We have a team now that's sticking together," he said. "We have a bunch of guys who are playing for each other and feel as though the guy next to him would lay down and die for him. It enables you to play a lot harder."

And despite the bravado, to appreciate the spoils. "We have the mind-set that no game is really a fluke," said Jauron, "that what should have happened on the field happens. . . . To win on the road, to win in our division, to win in the conference, this is a big step for us."

"Anything's possible," Williams said. "Who would have imagined we'd be 3-2 right now?"

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