Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
ATLANTA -- Wish I could tell you how many times I heard someone mutter the word "unbelievable" Sunday afternoon in the Chicago Bears' locker room. I lost track at five.
People use "unbelievable" far too often in our language. As long as you trust your visual acuity, you should believe most everything you see. And everyone in the Bears' locker room saw how their 22-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons went down. I saw it, too. But in this case, it really is hard to believe how much happened in the game's final 11 seconds to make that defeat a reality.
"It's almost like we didn't lose this game," receiver/kick returner Devin Hester said. "I mean, how could we?"
Indeed, the Bears -- trailing for almost the entire afternoon -- scored 10 points in the final four minutes to take a 20-19 lead. Kyle Orton's 17-yard touchdown pass to Rashied Davis came with 11 seconds remaining.
Eleven seconds. How many times does a game's outcome change after a team takes such a late lead?
What came next will take a while for the Bears and many of their fans to believe. Coach Lovie Smith called for a squib kickoff, a standard move that generally prevents a big return. Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Falcons' Jerious Norwood had returned a kickoff 85 yards. Smith wasn't taking any chances.
"Guys were a little tired," Smith said. "So we thought a squib would be safe."
It was. After all, how often does a player try to return a squib kick after he knocks it down in that situation? Every second he uses is one less for the offense to move into scoring position.
The return took five seconds. So six seconds remained. The Falcons had the ball at their 44-yard line.
"At that point we just want to finish the game," Bears defensive coordinator Bob Babich said. "We wanted the clock to run out. An incomplete pass. Whatever it would take for us to win."
Babich's defense, however, was down to two cornerbacks and therefore critically undermanned in the situation. After a long day of injuries and the surprising deactivation of Nathan Vasher, the Bears were down to second-year player Corey Graham and Marcus Hamilton at cornerback.
As a result, the Bears couldn't use their nickel defense when the Falcons' offense produced a three-receiver set on the next offensive play. Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer was defending the slot receiver, and Hamilton -- a 2008 waiver claim who was playing in his second game for the Bears -- was lined up against Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins.
Babich said he didn't feel comfortable playing man-to-man defense in that situation, an understandable sentiment considering Hillenmeyer's tough spot. That ruled out putting heavy pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and left the Bears in a relatively soft Cover 2 defense.
As the play unfolded, Hamilton passed Jenkins off to the deep safety, in this case veteran Mike Brown. But Jenkins simply cut off the route in front of Brown and made a 24-yard catch at the sideline before stepping out of bounds. One second remained on the clock.
One second. How many times does a 24-yard sideline pass take five seconds? How many times do you look up at the clock and see it tick down from one to zero before the official blows his whistle?
"It was just a corner route and Cover 2," Brown said. "Good ball. Good catch. Should have made the play and I didn't. I'll take the blame for that."
Brown was being a team player, but it's hard to fault him. As the deep safety, his primary job is to keep everything in front of him. He did that job.
And in many ways it's difficult to point a finger at Babich, who no doubt is getting excoriated on Chicago sports radio as I type these words. Should Babich have blitzed, a decision that might have forced a poor throw but also would have left a linebacker and two backup cornerbacks in man coverage?
"The call didn't work, obviously," Babich said. "That's my fault. We were in a coverage that we thought was good. And it didn't work out."
Jason Elam's 48-yard field goal seemed almost secondary, even though he had shanked a 33-yard attempt less than three minutes earlier. By then, most of the Bears' bench was already stunned -- and they hadn't snapped out of it as they departed the locker room. Even the normally stoic Lovie Smith seemed discombobulated, stumbling over a few cliches and then acknowledging the loss was "tough, tough."
"I wish I could give you a couple more words to really show you how bad it really is," Smith said. "I can't. That's life. You have setbacks like this, but this one hurts. We had victory right there within our grasp but we couldn't pull it out."
There will be those who suggest the Bears were fortunate to have been in a position to win, noting their 19-10 deficit midway through the fourth quarter. Linebacker Lance Briggs provided a voice to that sentiment, admitting: "The way the game worked out, we almost really kind of snuck away with one."
Not sure about you, but I'm still having a hard time believing they didn't.