Jim Flanigan's jaw was clenched so tightly, his teeth threatened to shatter under the pressure, and you wonder how much a six-year Bears veteran can take. You wonder how many more of these any of them can absorb and dissect and move past when every week, every season, every excursion onto a football field is so anxiety-laden.
And those are the victories.
Striving for respectability, much less a .500 record, is an agonizing proposition, these new and improved Bears are learning. That much more so when every step forward is followed by a kick in the stomach. Or in Sunday's case, a kick in overtime by Chris Boniol, who sent a potential game-winning field goal from 41 yards out just wide of the right upright.
The miss was all the more galling, following, as it did, a 20-yard shank at the end of regulation by Minnesota's Gary Anderson, who misses 20-yard field goals about as often as solar eclipses come around. When Anderson had his next opportunity, from 38 yards against the wind, he lifted it just over the crossbar to give the Vikings the 27-24 victory and send the Bears' spasmodic season record to 4-6.
"I don't even know what to say," said Flanigan after a 3-hour-36-minute back-and-forth affair that featured one of the best performances by a Bears quarterback in team history. "They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
They can only hope, because in a season now indelibly marked by the field-goal failure of three different Bears kickers, there also are tangible signs that this team finally belongs.
"That's why this hurts so much," said defensive end Bryan Robinson. "It's like a big knot in my throat. If you just go out there and get your tail whupped up and down the field, it's one thing. But we weren't trying to just stick with the Vikings. We felt we had the game won."
Left in the confident hands of Jim Miller, the last quarterback standing after injuries to Shane Matthews and Cade McNown depleted the Bears' passing corps in recent weeks, the offense enjoyed a rebirth of sorts.
Miller, in only his second NFL start and first since '96, when he was with Pittsburgh, rang up 422 yards on 34 of 48 completions with three touchdowns and an interception.
The big day It was the biggest day for a Bears quarterback since Bill Wade threw for 466 yards in 1962, and the fourth-best in team history, seemingly guaranteed Miller a start next Sunday in San Diego. But Bears coach Dick Jauron wouldn't say for sure with the return of both Matthews and McNown.
Given the choice, surely the Soldier Field crowd of 61,481 would pick Miller, who took advantage of a Vikings fumble--forced by Chris Hudson and recovered by Clyde Simmons--with a 77-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Robinson to open up an early 7-0 lead.
Still in the first quarter, Miller hit Marty Booker on a quick slant and the rookie took it from there, outsprinting the competition for a 57-yard touchdown on the first reception of his NFL career to give the Bears back the lead at 14-7.
The score was tied four times, the last when Booker caught a 25-yard scoring pass that made it 24-24 with 49 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The Bears led three times and the Vikings twice as Miller and Jeff George traded punches. The Vikings' quarterback was 25 of 44 for 374 yards with three touchdowns, all to Cris Carter, and one interception.
A 7-yarder to Carter came following a sack of Miller and resulting fumble in the second quarter. But Miller's only egregious error was his lone interception, coming on a first-and-10 from the Minnesota 24-yard line with 10 seconds left in the first half.
Miller also bemoaned that the Bears punted on all three possessions of the third quarter and the first of the fourth before failing on a fourth-and-1 from the Vikings' 41. During that span, a fourth-and-1 from the Vikings' 40 late in the third was foiled when Alonzo Mayes was penalized for illegal motion.
Defensively, the Bears prevented a probable Vikings' score with a team sack of George and fumble recovery by Flanigan at the Bears' 14 early in the third. But ultimately, the secondary was as much to blame as Boniol.
The most glaring slip-ups were two interference calls on cornerback Terry Cousin on third-down plays--one leading to the Vikings' go-ahead touchdown at 24-17 with 6:06 left in the fourth quarter, and the other giving the Vikings the ball on the Bears' 25 on the game-winning drive.
Walt Harris almost would have shared goat status as Randy Moss beat him on a double-pump for 42 yards on the final drive of regulation. But Anderson missed the 20-yarder on a bad snap and Harris intercepted the first pass of overtime.
"All that matters is the bottom line," said Boniol, who said he felt "great" kicking during the week. "And the bottom line is we had a chance to win with a field goal and we didn't, so I didn't get it done."
The Bears' only drive of overtime was a three-and-out with three rushes by Curtis Enis of 4, 3 and zero yards. Given the fact that the Bears went next to nowhere on the ground all day with 22 rushes for 49 yards for an average of 2.2 yards per carry, were they too conservative at the end?
"No," said offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer. "We've been told that 40 yards and in is Chris' range. You could look back on it now and say, `Yeah, maybe a quick throw here or there,' but what if they pick the ball off and you don't even have a chance? The wind was behind us, it was a comfortable range and we just missed the kick."
With the victory, the Vikings split the season series and left the Bears 2 1/2 games in back of division-leading Detroit. With a 4-6 record with six games remaining, the Bears probably can afford only one more loss if they still hope to make the playoffs.
"It's a pretty empty feeling to play our heart out like that and have it come down to that," Miller said. "It's frustrating. . . . But hey, we were in it at the end. We're close."
So close that it's becoming a bad habit as four of the Bears' losses have come by four points or less, another by seven points.
vikings 27, bears 24 (OT)