CHAMPAIGN—After so many Sundays of living on the edge, the Bears fell off.
The pixie dust that magically allowed the Bears to win their last 12 games decided by a touchdown or less failed Sunday. The Bears blew their largest lead in a decade, failing to make crucial plays in the stretch that have been their signature over the last couple of years and losing to the New Orleans Saints 29-23.
"Even though we're 2-1, in those two [wins] we weren't really that consistent, either, but we were able to pull them out. The thing this week will be consistency."
It was a game that should not have come down to a final play or plays, and the Bears knew it. After all, they outgained the Saints 163 yards to 18 on the way to a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, then lost the ball, the momentum and ultimately the game.
Fumbles. Missed tackles. Penalties. Mistakes. The stuff from which defeats are fashioned.
"We never should have come down to one play," said quarterback Jim Miller, who completed 26-of-40 passes for 236 yards but whose last-second pass into the end zone was intercepted in a blown play that seemed to symbolize the Bears' missteps on this day.
The Saints scored the game-winner on a pass from quarterback Aaron Brooks to rookie wide receiver Donté Stallworth, who sidestepped Bears cornerback Reggie Austin and eased into the end zone with 1 minute 11 seconds left in the game. Brooks then ran in for a two-point conversion.
"I was trying to close too fast and just didn't get in good tackling position [for Stallworth]," Austin said.
The Bears then drove from their 31 to the Saints' 18. But receivers Marty Booker and Dez White heard different calls in the huddle and ran to the same area of the end zone, and Miller's throw toward Booker was intercepted by safety Sammy Knight to end the Bears' undefeated run.
Offensive coordinator John Shoop said Booker and White should not have been in the same area, and White explained: "It seemed like bits and pieces of two different plays. I heard part of a play that pertained to me and Marty heard part that affected me and we ended up running a play that wasn't a play that was called, with two receivers in the same spot."
Booker agreed that "it was a little crowded up in there and the ball got intercepted, plain and simple. [Miller] was just trying to throw it behind me because guys were in front of me, and he just tried to give me a chance. It must've just sailed or something."
The outcome left the Saints and Carolina Panthers as the only undefeated teams in the NFC and dropped the Bears (2-1) into a tie with Green Bay for the NFC North lead.
It also marked the first time, after four wins last year, that the Bears have lost a game in which running back Anthony Thomas rushed for 100 or more yards. He had 111.
A primary goal for the offense was to score early against a team that had not trailed yet this season and that the Bears thought would unravel when it fell behind. The Saints indeed did just that, with personal-foul penalties after two of the Bears' first four scores and turnovers that resulted in the Bears' first three.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher forced a fumble by tailback Deuce McAllister on the Saints' third play. Rookie Bryan Knight recovered at the Bears' 49. The turnover turned into a 31-yard Paul Edinger field goal as the Bears began a stretch of scores on four consecutive possessions.
That was followed by a Miller-to-White touchdown pass after Austin intercepted a Brooks pass at the Bears' 48. The lead went to 17-0 when Miller threw a dart to Booker from 22 yards out on the third play of the second quarter. Knight's second fumble recovery then set up a 25-yard field goal by Edinger.
But that score came after the Bears took over at the New Orleans 13, and teams that fail to get touchdowns with such favorable field position typically regret it. And ultimately it was the Bears, not the Saints, who disintegrated slowly.
The Saints scored on a 16-yard Brooks pass to Jerome Pathon, then added a second touchdown 58 seconds later when Brooks scored on a 7-yard run after Leon Johnson muffed a kickoff.
The roll continued in the third quarter, with Brooks finishing a 65-yard drive with a 5-yard pass to Joe Horn for a 21-20 lead that held up until Edinger's field goal in the fourth quarter.
"Unfortunately, [the Saints] deserved it," Bears coach Dick Jauron said. "It was a very disappointing loss today."