The Chicago Bears needed a big-time fourth quarter comeback to improve to 6-1 on Sunday.
Perhaps it isn't a phenomenon entirely unique to Chicago, maybe it's merely a byproduct of a league eternally locked in parity. Whatever the reasoning, the Bears tend to have a few games each season so frustrating in their general malaise one can't help but succumb to fits of living room cussing, rushed team-wide judgements and maybe even some minor chest tightness. Examples spring to mind rather quickly: a game against the Falcons in 2008, Sunday night vs. the Giants in 2010, Week 2 this season against the Packers. For the first 53 minutes on Sunday, the Bears' Week 7 matchup with the Carolina Panthers was making its case to join this elite fraternity. The Bears were getting pulverized by an inferior lot, falling victim to the same flaws we'll worry about when this team is making its Super Bowl push months from now.
The offensive line was atrocious, leading to quarterback Jay Cutler being sacked six times in the first half. When the offense did show some vague signs of life, a fumble or interception would follow. The defense uncharacteristically allowed a big play here and there, and had to deal with some bad luck when the Panthers recovered a Cam Newton fumble in the end zone for their first touchdown. The normally automatic Robbie Gould actually missed a field goal inside of 40 yards.
Even the final box score showed all the telltale signs of a football disaster: the Panthers out-gained the Bears 416-210, and won the time of possession battle 36:38 to 23:22.
Somehow, the Bears won. Go ahead and tell yourself 'this is what good teams do'. Why not? It's better to have an ugly victory on the resume than a loss to a one-win opponent.
With seven minutes remaining, the Bears were down 19-7. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Panthers punter Brad Nortman kick-started Chicago's comeback with a six-yard punt. From there, it was all Bears. Cutler led a seven-play, 38-yard drive capped with a touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Davis. On the Panthers' very next offensive play following the kickoff, Tim Jennings jumped in front of a Cam Newton pass and took it to the end zone to give Chicago the lead.
The Panthers would add a field goal before Cutler led a nine-play, 55-yard drive that ended with a game-winning field goal by Gould, making up for his earlier miss. The Bears had their win, 23-22, keeping the dream of a 7-1 start alive before back-to-back throw downs with the similarly elite Texans and 49ers. Only the Titans stand in the way, as the Bears travel to Nashville next Sunday.
The victory leaves Chicago with a 'choose your own narrative' feel. It was a win that wouldn't have come to fruition without multiple factors working in the Bears' favor. For example:
Cutler as Hero: the Bears quarterback was at his absolute worst at times on Sunday, holding the ball too long, sloppy with his protection of the pigskin, even cussing out the fans. But when it mattered? Cutler went 12-for-14 for 106 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Defense as Fire-Breathing Monster: Jennings' critical fourth quarter pick-six was the 10th interception the Bears have returned for a touchdown in the last 20 games. Amazing.
Bears as Charmed: Newton is fully immersed in a sophomore slump, and it's likely the Bears couldn't have won this game without his blatant fourth quarter gaffe. Throw in the abysmal Carolina punt, too, and the Bears certainly had some good luck on their side.
The Bears have had plenty of seemingly miracle comebacks since their Super Bowl run during the 2006 season, but this one strikes me as unique in its execution. Could the Bears have won this game last season? I have my doubts. Never mind that 2011 Tim Jennings couldn't catch a cold; how would Cutler have staged that game-winning two-minute drill without Brandon Marshall? Marshall looked dominant on post routes throughout the game, and Cutler found him multiple times on the final drive. He finished with nine catches for 98 yards, and the franchise's receiving record books continue to be rewritten.
This ends as a game the Bears likely don't want to think too much about, though you can bet the coaching staff will be focusing on the early game troubles in film studies more than the late game heroics. The Bears shouldn't be tested much against the Titans next week, but it was safe to think the same thing coming into the game with the Panthers. The real gauge of their worth comes soon enough, when the Bears host the Texans on Sunday Night Football on Nov. 11. It's you're looking for a playoff forecaster, this is it. Until then, the Bears look poised to eat up their cupcake competition, and fatten that regular season for a first round bye in time for the postseason. This is turning into a fun year, and it's just getting started.