DENVER — Less than 15 minutes after Matt Prater's 51-yard field goal sailed through the uprights at Sports Authority Field, sending 76,487 Tim Tebow believers into hysteria, the Bears sat stunned in their locker room.
Talk was at a whisper level and faces were long even if reality hadn't set in yet — this team is going to need the kind of miracles Tebow has been delivering on a weekly basis if it has any hope of reaching the playoffs that last month seemed like a good bet.
Prater booted the Broncos (8-5) to an improbable 13-10 victory in overtime after it appeared the Bears had found a way to thwart Tebowmania. They were a little more than two minutes from handing Denver its first home shutout in 52 seasons of existence. What followed was the most stinging regular-season defeat in Lovie Smith's tenure, far worse than the last time the Bears squandered a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter – to the Buccaneers on Sept. 21, 2008.
"It's going to be a long week," said safety Craig Steltz, who appeared to ice the game when he had a sack and strip of Tebow with 8:53 remaining.
Running back Marion Barber was nowhere to be found in the locker room. He split before facing media to answer for his 108 yards rushing, 9-yard touchdown and the two plays that will be blamed for the Bears losing — getting pushed out of bounds by linebacker D.J. Williams with 1:55 remaining in regulation and then fumbling in overtime.
Barber fumbled at the Broncos' 33-yard line on a third-down run when the offense was already in field-goal range for Robbie Gould, who had made a franchise-record 57-yard field goal at the start of the fourth quarter to provide what looked like an insurmountable 10-0 lead.
If this week feels long, imagine what an offseason without a playoff appearance would be like.
The Bears appeared destined for a run into January until quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a fractured right thumb Nov. 20 against the Chargers when the club was 7-3. Now, they've lost three straight to AFC West opponents and at 7-6 they're a game behind the Lions and Falcons in the NFC wild-card race.
The way the offense is struggling with quarterback Caleb Hanie, there's no reason to believe the Bears will beat any of their remaining opponents, starting with the Seahawks on Sunday at Soldier Field.
"This is not good," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "We needed to win this one. We need to win every game obviously."
A Christmas date with the Packers at Lambeau Field looms and they showed no signs of slowing down, mauling the Raiders 46-16. The Raiders beat the Bears two weeks ago 25-20.
Hanie is hardly to blame alone for the Bears' first three-game slide since the 2009 season. The week before, Barber was responsible for an illegal formation penalty on what would have been a touchdown pass and wide receiver Roy Williams dropped a touchdown pass. It's an across-the-board failure because Hanie, who had been intercepted six times in the previous two games, did not commit a turnover Sunday.
Barber ran hard, sending Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers and safety Brian Dawkins off the field with injuries on a first-quarter run. He broke a scoreless tie midway through the third quarter on a nice 9-yard cutback and it looked like the defense had found a way to solve Tebow, who has won six straight games, three of them in overtime. Tebow had completed just 3 of 16 passes for 45 yards through the first three quarters.
But Tebow found holes in the Cover-2 defense in the closing minutes, driving the Broncos 63 yards on seven plays to throw a 10-yard touchdown pass to an uncovered Demaryius Thomas with 2:08 remaining. The Bears corralled the onside kick, and after the two-minute warning, Barber inexplicably made it easy for Williams to run him out of bounds.
"I feel like he was trying to get the first down and I think that was his mindset," said fellow running back Kahlil Bell, left to answer for his teammate. "Get the first down and win the game."
The Broncos were out of timeouts and coach John Fox estimated that saved them 35 seconds. The Bears punted with 1:06 remaining and Tebow took over on his own 20 with 56 seconds left. Poised in crunch time, he quickly moved the Broncos in range for a 59-yard field goal by Prater to tie his career long and force overtime.
Tebow, whom Urlacher called "a good running back," was 18 of 24 passing for 191 yards from the fourth quarter on.
The Bears won the coin toss for overtime and had third-and-7 at the Broncos' 38 when linebacker Wesley Woodyard stripped Barber. The rest is what the Broncos have been accustomed to witnessing.
"I don't think it's 'Tebow Time,' " the quarterback said. "I think it's 'Bronco Time.' "
Bears time looks to be running out.
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