It fluttered toward the uprights in an elapsed time of about 10 minutes, more than enough time for an entire football team's throats to close up, its coaches' hearts to constrict and a beleaguered kicker to watch his life and maybe a few others pass before his eyes.
Like a small brown helium balloon, the game-winning 36-yard field goal by Chris Boniol sailed up and over and yes, through, to give the Bears a 23-20 overtime victory Sunday over the San Diego Chargers, a flight as tenuous as the fortunes of the team it carried.
It did not seem to matter that this was the Chargers' fifth loss in a row, that San Diego's secondary was stapled together with rookies and fill-ins, that its running game was even less effective than the Bears', and that they still should not have lost.
Winning, said Bears tackle Mike Wells, means never having to say you're sorry.
It also means, in this case, that the Bears--the black-and-blue, grind-it-out, smash-mouth Chicago Bears--have firmly established themselves as a passing team with which to be reckoned.
Not without the more-than-capable passing arm of former third-string quarterback Jim Miller, whose 357 yards on 25-of-38 completions gives him 779 yards in the last two weeks, do the Bears have a chance.
Not without the increased role of the ever-reliable Bobby Engram, who had eight catches for 121 yards--including five for 81 yards after the third quarter--do they consistently move the ball downfield.
And certainly not without the fully blossoming game of Marcus Robinson, who had eight receptions for 121 yards--including catches of 36 yards, a run-and-catch of 20, a leaping, over-the-shoulder, spinning 38-yard grab for a touchdown in the third quarter and another 31-yarder on the only series in overtime--do the Bears win.
"I'm loving that one-on-one coverage," said Robinson, who still benefits from Engram drawing double-teams in the slot and should further benefit from Miller's getting the starting nod Thursday. "The ball's in the air, somebody has to make the play and I'm making the play.
"It's kind of a dream still. I don't realize it, but I'm getting better and better each week."
And slowly but surely, so are the Bears, though it's not always easy to tell.
They trailed 10-3 at halftime after having a 15-yard touchdown pass to Engram negated after an officials' review found the ball hit the ground, and a 33-yard field goal attempt by Boniol sail wide left.
In the third quarter, an interception and 37-yard return by tackle Shane Burton, who was filling in one play for a shaken-up Mike Wells, gave the Bears the ball at the San Diego 14. But that opportunity was squandered when Curtis Enis fumbled two plays later.
A 25-yard catch-and-run by Engram set up Robinson's 38-yard touchdown grab over rookie safety Jason Perry to tie the game at 10-all. And a 26-yard punt return by Glyn Milburn jump-started the next Bears possession, which included a 14-yard catch by Engram, a 30-yarder by Robinson and culminated with a 3-yard scoring run by Enis to give the Bears a 17-10 lead.
But the fourth quarter, save for a 26-yard field goal by Boniol and Burton blocking a 38-yard attempt by San Diego's John Carney, was dominated by the Chargers.
Any number of former Bears could have been the hero, namely Jim Harbaugh or Jeff Graham or Chris Penn, the trio that shredded the Bears' defense in the final five minutes, when the Chargers scored 10 points to force overtime.
The way the Chargers were going, moving downfield at will in their last three possessions, the Bears probably won the game when they took the coin toss at the start of overtime.
"We didn't take care of the details of our job and it almost cost us a football game," said Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache.
San Diego's final two scoring drives were succinct--8-of-11 passing by Harbaugh and no rushes for 131 yards, a 13-yard touchdown pass to Tremayne Stephens and a 28-yard field goal by Carney with 5 seconds left.
The Bears had to know they had to end it quickly in overtime.
"We weren't going to just run it three times and kick," said Bears coach Dick Jauron, referring, no doubt, to last week's overtime period in which the Bears ran three times before Boniol missed a 41-yard field goal.
This time, Miller came out throwing, advancing to the Chargers' 28-yard line on a 31-yard completion to Robinson. Two plays later, a diving attempt in the end zone by Curtis Conway was ruled incomplete, but illegal contact by San Diego gave the Bears the ball at the 22.
For Boniol, whose miss last week cost the Bears a victory against Minnesota and barely escaped being cut this past week, the 36-yarder was "a realistic kick."
And for now, says the Bears, the playoffs are still a realistic goal.
"This is the time to make our big push," said Engram. "That's what we're preaching right now. We let some games go early on and we have a big challenge at Detroit, but we're ready to meet that challenge."
BEARS 23, CHARGERS 20, OT
Boniol puts foot down
Blocks out failures, nails winner
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