What We Learned
Three things we know after Bears' 37-31 OT victory
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
CHICAGO -- In a battle of surprising 4-1 teams that produced a surprising turnaround, Chicago overcame a 19-point San Francisco lead with a game-closing 28-3 run, shocking the 49ers 37-31 in overtime at Soldier Field.
Here are three observations from the game:
1. If the Bears are trying to save their head coach's job, they're more than halfway home toward their goal.
At 5-1, a game ahead of second place Green Bay in the NFC Central, the Bears are in prime position to post their first winning season since 1995, when they finished 9-7. That ought to be enough to ensure the future employment of head coach Dick Jauron, who entered this year with an 11-21 mark in his first two seasons in Chicago.
Jauron's players go to bat for him every chance they get, as quarterback Shane Matthews did again Sunday in post-game interviews. They know he was put in a tenuous situation this season when the team hired new general manager Jerry Angelo. It's no secret that Angelo probably wants to hire his own man as head coach. But Angelo is also smart enough not to mess with a good thing.
If Jauron wins this season, gets the city squarely behind him, and the Bears continue to sing his praises as a player’s coach who has locker room-wide respect, you can expect Angelo won't force the issue. Like everyone who comes into contact with the likable Jauron, Angelo has come to appreciate his easy manner, straightforward nature, and noticeable lack of ego.
Angelo continues to be non-committal on Jauron's future for one very good reason: He can afford to be. He doesn't have to make a quick decision, so he won't. Better to let Jauron's Bears make the decision easy for him. One way or another.
So far, the Bears are raising the bar of expectations rapidly. After starting 5-1, it's possible that nothing short of a playoff berth will feel like success in Chicago this season. But that would be getting greedy in a city that hasn't experienced the postseason since 1994. Chances are, four more wins earns Jauron another shot. A division title earns him a fat, long-term contract.
For Jauron, this season amounts to a week-by-week Sunday afternoon referendum.
2. He has been an on-again, off-again Bear since 1993, but quarterback Shane Matthews was definitely on again Sunday against San Francisco.
All week long in practice, Matthews ran the Bears scout team. It was his job to impersonate gifted 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia. Then came game day, and quite unexpectedly, it was Matthews' job to beat Garcia. And he did it, dinking and dunking his way to 25 of 31 passing for 166 yards, with three touchdowns and a glitzy 107.8 quarterback rating.
Matthews got the call when Bears starter Jim Miller went down with a hip pointer with 4:23 remaining in the first half. Miller was having little luck at the time, with just five completions in 16 attempts, for 63 yards, and one interception in the 49ers end zone. Ironically, the injury prone Miller was making his career-high fourth consecutive start against the 49ers.
The turn of events is merely par for the course in terms of Chicago's ever-shifting quarterback situation. Miller and Matthews have changed places on more than one occasion in recent years, with both having some successful runs. But the Bears had begun to think of Miller as their clear-cut No. 1, even opening contract extension talks with his agent in recent weeks.
But Bears GM Jerry Angelo last week conceded that Miller had to prove he could stay healthy and productive before the team settled on him as its long-term answer at quarterback. Matthews was the team's opening day starter, but he injured his ribs and gave way to Miller during the course of Chicago's Sept. 23 win against Minnesota.
What now? Probably more of the same.
Look for Matthews to get another start or two in place of Miller, who figures to be too sore to play his best next week against visiting Cleveland. But then Chicago likely will turn things back over to Miller, who entered Sunday completing a career-best 68.9 percent of his passes, with a solid rating of 84.9.
Unless, of course, Matthews catches fire next week against the Browns. In that case, stay tuned ....
3. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the Bears would never have had the chance to overcome the 49ers' 31-23 lead in the final seconds of regulation and overtime.
Once upon a time, the NFL didn't use the 2-point conversion.
The Bears-49ers thriller at Soldier Field on Sunday looked like a blowout for most of the afternoon. San Francisco led 28-9 midway through the third quarter, and was still comfortably ahead 31-16 midway through the fourth quarter.
In the old days, they could have started turning out the lights on the Bears. But a 15-point lead ain't what it used to be in the NFL. And we have that funny little college invention -- the 2-point conversion -- to thank. Instead of scoring with 26 seconds remaining to cut the 49ers lead to one at 31-30, forcing them into trying a longshot onside kick, the Bears had the option of tying the game with a deuce.
When rookie running back Anthony Thomas dove in from three yards out -- a play that required instant replay review to stand -- the Bears had new life in overtime. Chicago needed just one play -- safety Mike Brown's game-winning 33-yard interception return -- to post its biggest come-from-behind victory in 14 years.
Once again, playing for eight was enough to ensure a fabulous finish.