|Sunday, October 28
Updated: October 30, 7:03 AM ET
Young Bears making their mark
By Len Pasquarelli
CHICAGO -- Among the myriad tattoos that adorn the upper body of Chicago Bears cornerback R.W. McQuarters is a conspicuous design smack in the middle of his torso, a stylus artwork collage that exquisitely described his team's fortunes here on Sunday and one that perhaps portended the eventual outcome.
Flanked by a pair of squiggly black arrows, one of them pointed down and the other up, are just two words: "That's life."
Especially to a Bears defense that stumbled around incoherently for three quarters, then rallied in the fourth period and finally stole the game on an interception and a 33-yard touchdown return by free safety Mike Brown just 16 seconds into the extra period.
The stunning reversal, on a play where San Francisco wide receiver Terrell Owens might have sprinted a long way had he not bobbled the ball into Brown's hands, represented the quickest overtime in NFL history. No small feat for a Bears team that seems to do a lot of things in slow motion, particularly on offense but which manages to keep winning.
"I like the message of that tattoo," said McQuarters, a 49ers' first-round choice in 1998 who was dealt to the Bears last year after two nondescript seasons in San Francisco. "I mean, life is kind of a series of 'up' arrows and 'down' arrows, right? But then there are the times, with our defense, when we stick the arrow right in you. And those are great."
It didn't take too long into overtime for the Chicago defense, which entered the game having surrendered the fewest points in the league and on pace to shatter the Baltimore Ravens' record for the fewest points allowed in a 16-game schedule, to fire an arrow into the collective heart of the San Francisco offense.
On the first snap from scrimmage in overtime, the 49ers ran one of their characteristic clearing plays, a series of precise intermediate crossing routes designed to free Owens in the middle of the field. From the San Francisco 20-yard line, Jeff Garcia's pass hit Owens in the hands but, as he turned to head upfield, the ball ricocheted off him and to Brown. The second-year free safety, one of the NFL's best unknown players at his position, cut to the right sideline and scored untouched.
Owens, who ended the second of the 49ers' two overtime victories earlier this season with a 52-yard touchdown catch at Atlanta, was, indeed, tattooed on the play by Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. But that hit, video demonstrated, came a millisecond after the ball already was free and floating toward a waiting Brown.
Several of the Bears players, and even defensive coordinator Greg Blache, suggested Owens coughed up the ball because the Chicago secondary has a reputation as being one of the NFL's biggest-hitting units. Brown and strong safety Tony Parrish, for sure, bring plenty of wood to the battle and Urlacher is quick enough to get back into deep zones and make himself a presence in the passing lanes.
"All I know is, the ball was out before he got hit, and so I think he knew that we were coming," Brown said when asked about Owens' bobble. "He watches tape like everybody in the league, I'm sure, so he knows we're very aggressive in the secondary. You venture into our turf, we're going to hit you. He just kind of coughed (the ball) up, and I'm sure that had something to do with it."
Added Blache, whose defense had permitted only one touchdown in its last 13 quarters coming into the game: "I said it all week, that I wouldn't want to be a receiver catching the ball in the middle of this defense. Our guys (converge) pretty good. I think the word is getting out about this defense. It's getting better every week, and we saw today at the end when we needed them, just how the guys came through."
The explosive Owens protested that the pass from Garcia was low and that he had to turn to make the grab. The replay indicated the ball might have been slightly behind him but not by much. This much, though, is certain: The 49ers' combination of crossing routes had sufficiently cleared out the middle of the field and rubbed off some Bears defenders that, had Owens caught the ball and maybe slipped just one tackle, he might still be running.
"It was the perfect pass, the perfect play call for the perfect situation, and it ended up with the worst possible result," said Garcia of the final play.
For the day, Owens had six receptions for 60 yards, far less than the league-record 20-catch performance against the Bears with which he concluded the 2000 season. For most of the afternoon, Chicago bracketed Owens and played a lot of "two deep" zone coverage and Garcia was able to get the ball with facility to other people. Garcia completed passes to eight different receivers in all, with 10 of his 21 connections going to running backs and tight ends.
Despite scoring just two offensive touchdowns, San Francisco had three possessions of 10 plays or more and four series of 50-plus yards.
"Give credit to the Bears for never rolling over but, to tell the truth, I thought we had it in hand," Garcia said. "I'm still not sure how we lost this thing."
One hint: On their final four possessions, the 49ers netted only a field goal. When they got the ball back with 26 seconds remaining in regulation, after the Bears had tied it on a 4-yard touchdown catch by rookie wideout David Terrell and a two-point conversion run by former Michigan teammate Anthony Thomas, 49ers coach Steve Mariucci opted to play for the overtime.
A few San Francisco veterans privately questioned Mariucci's decision to have Garcia kneel down and kill the clock. It seemed, however, the judicious call and even players in the Chicago locker room agreed.
Well, kind of.
"I'm sure they were thinking, 'Hey, we're the San Francisco 49ers, we're a better team, we'll just take it and jam it right up their (noses),' and get out of here with a win," said McQuarters, who felt he never got a fair shake from 49ers management. "But at the end, who was doing the celebrating, huh?"
The improbable conclusion to the contest, in which Chicago trailed 28-9 after a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown by San Francisco free safety Zack Bronson midway through the third quarter, set off a celebration in the end zone and in the stands. The fans of "Da Bears" have been waiting a long time for what is setting up as a magical season and the moment may have galvanized a young Chicago team that refuses to bail out when times get tough.
If the Bears go on to secure their first postseason berth since 1994, ironically in a season when head coach Dick Jauron was simply supposed to be keeping the seat warm for his successor next spring, they almost certainly will look back on Sunday's huge comeback as a significant moment. The victory was accomplished, after all, with No. 2 quarterback Shane Matthews forced to play the final 35 minutes following a hip pointer sustained by starter Jim Miller in the second quarter when he was hit on a blitz by Derek Smith.
And it came on an afternoon when the normally stingy Bears defense gave up yardage in big gobs, the offense coughed the ball up three times, and the 49ers' defense scored two touchdowns on takeaway returns.
"Let's be honest, we stole one, snatched a game when we played just awful," allowed strongside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "It's unusual when everyone on your defense plays his worst game of the year. But we all got beat at some point, and we made more mistakes today than we had all season, total."
San Francisco in particular took advantage of the matchup advantages that it created by getting its tailbacks deep into the Chicago secondary. Tailback Garrison Hearst beat a flailing Warrick Holdman up the right sideline for a 60-yard touchdown catch and also had a 30-yard reception after a brilliant play-action fake to him by Garcia. There were times it was obvious the Bears' defense was confused, other times when it seemed they were simply a step slow.
"But when the offense kept creeping back into it, we said to ourselves, 'Let's go out and win this thing, OK?,' " said defensive end Phillip Daniels. "As long as we still had a pulse, there was no sense just dying. And at the end, we were there. I'll tell you what, I haven't felt that good in a long, long while."
On such comebacks are the playoffs earned. And while it's doubtful anyone else in the Bears' locker room has a tattoo even vaguely resembling the McQuarters styling, Chicago players left Soldier Field more confident than they had arrived for a critical intradivisional battle of young upstarts.
And with the arrow definitely pointed upward.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.