With the Chicago Bears secluded in their locker room in the moments following an unthinkable 13-10 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos, star linebacker Brian Urlacher told a horde of reporters that his team had just been defeated by a "good running back". He wasn't talking about Willis McGahee. The bitterness was hardly out of character for Urlacher. This imprint of the Bears' defense has long been proud and stubborn, and those qualities have only amplified as they've aged. It makes what happened in the waning minutes of Sunday's game all the more preposterous: on the brink of their Rushmore, the Bears were reduced to another faceless lot by the intrinsic magic of Tim Tebow.
The Broncos had never been shutout at home in their 52 years of existence, but Urlacher's unit came damn close on Sunday. They got within three minutes. With playoff hopes hanging in the balance, it seemed impossible that a unit as audacious as this Bears defense would fall casualty to Tebow. They're simply too callous for that. But from the first sign of a Chicago implosion, the game's conclusion appeared foregone. With Tebow, we know how the script goes.
Try as we might to make this a story about the Bears, it isn't. Chicago may as well have abandoned its color scheme and torn the logo off their helmets: in Denver, they were just another amorphous victim in Tebow's confounding reign of terror. This loss will sting for the rest of the season in this city, possibly forever, but to the national media the Bears will only be another footnote in Tebow's unbelievable sophomore season. This is turning into some Hollywood shit. Tim Tebow may be the single most authentic sports personality I've ever seen, and that's what makes his raging success all the more mind-blowing. This has to be real life, because Hollywood could never write something so good.
The chain of events that led directly to Denver's win are not possible. If Marion Barber doesn't run out of bounds with under two minutes remaining, with Chicago in complete control, the game would have ended in a Bears victory. Had Barber not fumbled in overtime with the Chicago offense marching down the field, Robbie Gould surely would have finished the job. A pair of decisive kicks made by Denver's Matt Prater, to force overtime and then to win the game, were just as contrary to reason: even in the thin air of Mile High, a 59-yard field goal is absurd. As was the 51-yarder that sealed Chicago's fate. And then there's this: after going 3-for-16 in the game's first three quarters, Tebow went 15-for-20 to end it. Of course, it all adds up to another nonsensical highlight in Tebow's outrageous career.
A few of these Bears have experienced something similar before, just never on this side. The Bears' 2006 comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals was every bit as unfeasible. As Devin Hester and the defense keyed the win in spite of the offense and all logic, I remember feeling like I was hit by wrecking ball of joy. Sunday was the exact same way, only the opposite: this is the type of loss that affects a sports fan to an embarrassingly high degree. You can feel this loss, tangibly. My insides haven't felt normalized since Barber ran out of bounds, and I doubt I'll reach equilibrium anytime soon.
What really hurts is just how much was at stake. Before the Jay Cutler injury, these Bears -- then 7-3, now 7-6 -- looked as strong as we've seen ever them, at least since their mid-'80s run of dominance. With the possibility Cutler could return for the playoffs, every game for Chicago has been about survival. If they could only *reach* the postseason, everything in the world would be OK. After a loss to Kansas City last week that was nearly as unlikely and dejecting, losing to Tebow feels like an occasion worthy of flying a white flag for. If the Bears lost *that* game, what game without Cutler and star running back Matt Forte can they possibly win?
What will rightfully be overshadowed by the game's frantic ending is how Chicago had seemingly found evenness for the first time since Cutler went down. Yes, the game was decidedly hard to watch before the dramatic finale, but a look at the box score reveals that the Bears may have finally found a game plan that fits them with Caleb Hanie in tow. Before Barber became the goat, he was actually pretty good: he rushed for 108 yards and combined with Kahlil Bell to form a solid rushing attack that got 38 carries to prove its worth. Whereas Hanie tossed 60 passes combined in his first two starts, he only threw 19 times against Denver. That's a run-pass ratio that should -- and for a while, did -- work for the Bears, especially when combined with such a strong defensive effort. If indeed the Earth will continue spinning after a defeat so heartbreaking, there are lessons here that can be harvested for the remaining games.
The loss dropped the Bears out of the NFC playoff picture for the first time since their mid-season five-game winning streak clouded Chicago's collective mind with delusions of grandeur. They can still vault passed Atlanta or Detroit, but they'll need some help. The Bears have three games left, and two of them (home against the Seahawks and at the Vikings) are positively winnable. But for whom? With Cutler, Chicago never would have been in this mess, and victories over Seattle and Minnesota would have been certain. Instead, the Bears are still scratching and clawing, just trying to stay alive. This loss in Denver may have very well been the final nail in the Bears' coffin, though. If this is how we last saw them with a pulse, at least the end wasn't boring.
Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.