It's 4th and ouch as Bears fall at Tampa

Tribune staff reporter

Suddenly, the Bears are in need of a designated driver to get them to the playoffs.

They relinquished the driver's seat in the NFC Central title race Sunday by losing 13-10 to Tampa Bay, which left them with a 7-6 record and Green Bay and Detroit speeding by.

The Bears' December road swoon continued at Tampa Stadium in front of 56,667 fans. The Bears have lost 11 straight December road games since 1987.

Quarterback Jim Harbaugh may be lost to the Bears depending on the severity of the injury to his right hand, which sidelined him near the end of the first half. P.T. Willis took over in the second half and engineered the Bears' only touchdown.

"We aren't sure of the extent of the injury yet," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt, whose squad hosts Denver Saturday at Soldier Field. "They X-rayed him at halftime, and the X-rays were a little bit uncertain. There was swelling. That was the main thing as far as him gripping the ball. He wanted to go back in, but we didn't want to take a chance of turning the thing over or something."

But two failed fourth-down plays in the final quarter ended the Bears' four-game winning streak.

Willis and Harbaugh had nearly identical statistics. Harbaugh completed 11 of 18 passes for 81 yards, Willis 11 of 18 for 86 yards.

"I thought P.T. did a good job moving the team," Wannstedt said. "But it isn't one guy. We need to to improve in a lot of areas if we expect to make any progress and move on from here.

"Obviously, things are not over, but now it's an uphill battle."

The Bucs got on the board after a Bears turnover in the first quarter. Tight end Keith Jennings caught a short pass over the middle but had the ball knocked loose by linebacker Hardy Nickerson.

"I was trying to get extra yardage," Jennings said. "I got hit, and I just knew a bunch of guys were on me. They just stripped me. I don't know if the whistle had gone off. And I don't know if I was down. I was trying to get extra yards, and I gave them three points instead."

From the Bears' 43, Tampa Bay moved to the 20 before settling for a 38-yard field goal by Michael Husted.

Tampa Bay, winning for only only the fourth time this season, went ahead 10-0 with 2:03 left in the half.

Dan Stryzinski's punt was downed on the 1-yard line by Curtis Buckley. The Bears failed to advance the ball on three plays, forcing Chris Gardocki to punt from the back of his end zone. His 40-yard boot was returned 34 yards by Courtney Hawkins, who eluded tackle attempts by Maurice Douglass and Ron Cox.

On second down from the 4, Mazio Royster scored his first NFL touchdown, putting the Bears in an early hole.

Kevin Butler got the Bears on the board, however, as time expired in the first half with a 55-yard field goal. The boot tied the club record he already shared with Bob Thomas.

Willis started the second half and directed the Bears on a seven-play, 70-yard drive to tie the game 10-10 with 9:37 left in the third quarter.

"I didn't know I was going to play until I got out there in the second half," Willis said. "But that's no problem. That's what I get paid to do."

A 39-yard pass-interference penalty on cornerback Martin Mayhew trying to defend against Terry Obee gave the Bears the ball on the 1. From there, Neal Anderson dove in for the TD.

Anderson's touchdown was the 71st of his career, vaulting him past Rick Casares into second place behind Walter Payton in the Bears' record book.

Donnell Woolford recorded his second interception of the season with 8:01 left in the third quarter when Craig Erickson (12 of 21 for 128 yards) tried to pass deep to Hawkins into double coverage.

The Bears could not convert that turnover, however, and Gardocki punted only 24 yards to give the Bucs excellent field position at their 45. Tampa Bay moved 31 yards in six plays before getting a 42-yard field goal from Husted to move ahead 13-10 with 3:48 to go in the third quarter.

The Bears mounted a drive to the Tampa Bay 39 before Anderson fumbled and the Bucs' Jimmy Williams recovered with 1:56 to go in the third quarter.

The Bears drove to the Tampa Bay 36 midway through the fourth quarter. But when they tried for a first down on fourth and 1, Tim Worley was stopped by Marty Carter with 9:17 left.

"We have to try to muster up a way to score more points. That's obvious," Wannstedt said. "If we can't make fourth down and less than a yard, you really don't deserve to win the game. Give Tampa credit. They made the play, we didn't. So we don't make it on fourth down and we turn it over twice."

Tampa Bay moved to the Bears' 32 before Husted missed a 50-yard attempt short and wide right.

The Bears advanced to midfield, but a fourth-and-6 pass to Robert Green gained only a yard and the Bucs took over on downs.

When Stryzinski was roughed by Ron Cox on a punt with 19 seconds left, the Bears' fate had been sealed.

"I don't think that it was deflected," Wannstedt said. "Ron was just laying out, trying to make a play."

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