In my 30-plus years of watching football, I’ve seen some crazy finishes. I’ve seen Hail Mary’s. I’ve watched trick plays. And, of course, I’ve witnessed back-to-back weeks of Mike Brown interception returns for touchdowns. In overtime, no less.
But as far as a sequence of events, rather than one play or one drive, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen something that paralleled what transpired in Denver on Sunday.
Kicker Eddy Pineiro drilled a 53-yard field goal as time expired to give the Bears a 16-14 victory over the Broncos. But that was only the exciting conclusion to the roller coaster ride that preceded it.
Bears were gassed at the end of the game
For those of you who shrug off the thin air of Denver as no big deal, or dismiss its effects on opposing teams as “overblown,” don’t tell that to Bears linebacker Khalil Mack.
“Altitude is a real thing,” Mack said after the game. “You don’t want that breakdown at the end.”
“You try running at this elevation?” cornerback Prince Amukamara added.
There was clear, indisputable evidence that the altitude was taking its toll on the Bears’ defense late in the fourth quarter. After containing the Broncos’ offense for three quarters and holding them to two field goals, the fourth quarter hit and things changed.
Quarterback Joe Flacco led the Broncos’ offense on two sustained drives that left the Bears gasping for air.
The first was a 16-play drive at the start of the fourth quarter that ended with a Kyle Fuller interception at the 3-yard-line on third-and-goal.
It seemed like it could have been the game-clinching interception had the offense been more productive moving the football. Instead, the Bears punted it back to the Broncos to give them one more opportunity.
Flacco engineered another 12-play drive, leading the Broncos right back into scoring position. That’s when the roller coaster left the station.
Mack had to take himself out of the game on fourth-and-three at the Bears’ 12-yard-line to go get some oxygen on the sideline. Obviously, the Bears did not want their best defender out of the game on such a pivotal play, so head coach Matt Nagy used the Bears’ second timeout.
“You saw Khalil come out on the fourth down and so I just wanted to call a timeout,” Nagy said. “I felt like it was more important for him to be out there on that fourth down. He was tired.”
When play resumed, Flacco connected with Courtland Sutton to pick up the first down. And on the next play, Emmanuel Sanders caught a touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone to bring the score to 13-12.
Go for the win, or play for overtime? Vic gambles
Maybe it’s his age, or his drab game day attire. Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s been a defensive coordinator for more years than I can remember. Whatever the case may be, I’ve never envisioned Broncos head coach Vic Fangio as a gambling man.
So, when cameras caught a glimpse of Fangio on the sideline after the Sanders touchdown, signaling what looked like he wanted to go for the two-point conversion attempt, I was a little bit surprised.
Sure enough, Flacco and the offense remained on the field and the Broncos chose to go for the win. And why not? The Bears’ defense was gassed and had just been bullied on two straight possessions.
But before the Broncos could snap the ball, the play clock expired and bumped them back 5 yards. At which point, I felt relief and tweeted this:
Wow. My heart was pounding there. Thank goodness for the delay of game. #CHIvsDEN
— BearsBeat.com (@bearsbeat) September 15, 2019
Much to Fangio’s dismay, the Broncos had to send out kicker Brandon McManus to attempt the game-tying PAT. My emotions went from relief to encouragement. At least the Bears would get a shot in overtime if the offense couldn’t drive into field goal range, right?
Then the unthinkable happened and McManus pushed the extra point attempt wide right. No way! Emotions went from encouragement to elation. The Bears just might have pulled this off after all!
Whoops. There was a flag on the play. Bears nickelback Buster Skrine jumped the snap and was flagged for offsides. Rather than give McManus a reprieve, Fangio sent his offense back out there to — once again — go for the win.
Flacco connected with Sanders again, this time for the successful two-point attempt and a one-point Broncos lead, 14-13.
The back-breaker from which the Bears do not recover?
When you drop a devastating loss, sometimes it has severe ramifications that ripple throughout the rest of the season. Look what happened with the Cody Parkey missed field goal in the playoffs last year. The Bears didn’t have any season remaining, so it instead rippled throughout the entire offseason.
That was my first thought when the Broncos made that two-point conversion, when I tweeted this:
— BearsBeat.com (@bearsbeat) September 15, 2019
I thought: there are 31 seconds on the clock and we’re asking Mitch Trubisky — who has not played well through seven quarters of football this season — to lead the Bears into field goal range? I’m normally the optimist, but that did not seem like a realistic probability.
On the first play of the final drive, Trubisky hit Trey Burton — yes, the enigmatic Trey Burton — for a five-yard gain. Fortunately, Broncos pass rusher Bradley Chubb was flagged for a — very questionable — roughing the passer penalty, tacking on an additional 15 yards for the Bears.
Suddenly, things looked quite promising! The Bears had a first down on their own 45-yard-line with one timeout.
The emotions went back to encouragement. Cautious optimism.
Unfortunately, that was short-lived as three straight incompletions later, the Bears faced a pivotal fourth down play. For good measure, the Bears were penalized five yards for “too many men on the field.”
With 9 seconds left, and the Bears backed up to their own 40-yard line, getting a first down mattered not at this point. The Bears needed at least 20 yards for a reasonable chance at a last-second field goal.
Trubisky makes his best play of the game
You can pardon me — as I will pardon other skeptical Bears fans — if we had our doubts that Trubisky would pick up enough yards on this play — before time expired — to give the Bears a shot at winning the game.
But, boy did he prove us wrong.
With great protection from the offensive line, Trubisky bought time in the pocket — what little there was left — and stepped up and delivered a 25-yard strike to Allen Robinson, who immediately went down to the ground.
The game clock expired, but after a brief huddle, the officials determined that there was one second left when Robinson gave himself up and the Bears called their final timeout.
Trubisky had done his part. Now it was time to send the kicker out for a pressure-packed game-winning field goal attempt. Where have we seen that before?
As Pineiro trotted onto the field for the game-winning attempt, visions of last year’s “Double Doink” were flashing through Bears fans’ heads.
“Please don’t let this happen again,” I thought to myself. At that point, it mattered more to me that the Bears squash this ridiculous kicker drama than the Bears avoiding falling to 0-2.
I will say this: the fact that the Broncos did not have a timeout to try to “ice” Pineiro was a huge deal. He was able to just run out there, get into his rhythm, and boot the ball through.
And that’s just what he did. He banged home the 53-yard kick to send the Bears home victorious.
Bears kicking demons have been exorcised
As the Bears jubilantly rushed Pineiro on the field, I sent out this last tweet.
All is right in the kicker world. The demons have been exorcised. #CHIvsDEN
— BearsBeat.com (@bearsbeat) September 15, 2019
Do I really believe the Bears have finally found their kicker? Will I feel comfortable each and every time he trots onto the field to attempt an important kick?
No, not necessarily. Pineiro will probably miss a few more kicks before it’s all said and done.
But what mattered most to me was stopping this narrative that has become a running punchline around the NFL. Whether it was the likeness to a traveling clown car of kickers, or whether it was the suggestion for women’s soccer players to try out for the team, it was becoming a national joke. And it needed to be exterminated.
In a city that allowed the curse of a goat to take flight for as long as it did, I’m pleased that the “curse of Robbie Gould” was broken before it did anything more than taxi the runway.
Bears outlook moving forward
Contrary to what Billy Hoyle said in White Men Can’t Jump: “You’d rather look good and lose than look bad and win,” I’d much rather win an ugly game than lose in spectacular fashion.
“There’s no such thing as an ugly win,” Bears coach Lovie Smith once said. But with all due respect to him, it’s not the win that is ugly. It’s the performance.
Yes, I’m happy that the Bears are 1-1 at this point in the season. When their schedule came out, I actually predicted they’d be right where they are, writing this:
In the first five games of the season, prior to their bye week, I predict the Bears will go 4-1. I think of those five games, the Packers or Broncos pose the greatest obstacle to the Bears.
But the 1-1 record does not feel as I thought it might when I made the prediction back in April. And that is largely due to the performance of the offense. Something is not right with that unit. And while a large chunk of that has to do with Trubisky’s development, there’s more than meets the eye.
Once the Bears figure out what that problem is, they have a shot to be really good. But if they never do, it’s another wasted season for one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Although the offense is not what I expected it to be, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears still take a 4-1 record into their bye week. I think that they will ride this momentum into next Monday’s game against the Redskins and pick up a victory there before heading home for a divisional date with the Vikings.
The Vikings played the Packers tough this week, but as we saw throughout, quarterback Kirk Cousins is still a trainwreck. I have little doubt that they can be beaten at Soldier Field.
Then the following week is in London against the Raiders. I thought the Raiders would be a total pushover this year, but they’ve looked a little better than advertised. Still, they’re beatable.
And if the Bears enter their Week 6 bye with either a 4-1 or 3-2 record, that’s more than acceptable in my book.