CHICAGO — The final arrow from Tom Brady’s quiver Thursday night never found its target, a fourth-down shot over the middle to Cameron Brate that Chicago Bears safety DeAndre Houston-Carson knocked to the Soldier Field grass.
This wasn’t the Brady the NFL world has gotten used to over the last 21 seasons, the six-time Super Bowl champion who has made a living torturing opponents with last-minute, tear-your-soul-out, game-winning drives. Instead, Brady’s final pass Thursday never had much of a chance, a forced throw into tight coverage with 33 seconds left.
Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Bears, 20-19, at Soldier Field. To compound the frustration, the star quarterback seemed dazed, apparently believing there was still another down left as he motioned to officials for clarity.
Third down? Fourth down? What just happened?
Pressed for answers after the game on his late-game confusion, Brady’s answers were neither specific or verbose. “I knew we needed a chunk,” he said, “and I was thinking more about yardage. And then, you know, it was just bad execution.”
With the Buccaneers having 10 days before they get their next chance to play, Brady acknowledged the aggravation of the loss would sit with them.
“It should sit with us,” he said. “Because when you don’t play well, it’s going to sit with you. … We all know that we were playing a tough, hard-nosed team. They weren’t going to give us the game.”
That, as much as anything, deserves special mention from the Bears’ fourth win of the season and arguably their most impressive. The Bears defense smothered Brady for three-plus hours. They caused his typically unflappable concentration to short-circuit on the final drive with the game on the line. Then they sent him home agitated and flustered.
“It’s about stepping up and making plays when we really needed to,” Bears linebacker Roquan Smith said. “That’s what good defenses do.”
The final game book credited the Bears with three sacks and eight quarterback hits.
Khalil Mack had two of the former and three of the latter. That didn’t include a 6-yard takedown of Brady in the third quarter that was wiped away by a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty. But it did include a nasty sack of the legendary quarterback a series earlier that was followed by Mack slinging 320-pound right tackle Tristan Wirfs into a midair cartwheel and an unfriendly landing.
“I can’t explain that, man,” Mack said. “It just happens. I play the game very physical, and it just so happened that he was holding on to me, and I had to get him off.”
Bears quarterback Nick Foles likened the win to a fistfight. Foles fueled the winning drive in the closing minutes, a modest 32-yard march that ended with Cairo Santos’ go-ahead 38-yard field goal with 1 minute, 13 seconds remaining. But the Bears had that opportunity only because their tenacious and reliable defense forced a 27-second three-and-out on the Buccaneers’ previous series. And after the Bears slid back ahead, the defense prevented Brady from adding another page to his lengthy game-winning drive history.
“Man, with these guys, it’s a mentality,” Mack said. “When our backs are against the wall or there’s a lot of doubt out there, we believe in each other. And we know in those moments that we can count on one another.”
Added Smith: “We knew going into that drive that it was going to be on us. We love it that way, with the pressure on us.”
For the third time in five games, the defense held an opponent below 20 points and without multiple touchdowns. Man, what a luxury for Foles and coach Matt Nagy and everyone else on the offensive side of the ball.
In the first half Thursday, the defense kept the floodgates closed when the offense couldn’t get started. And the night’s most pivotal play might have been Kyle Fuller’s jarring and fundamentally sound shot on Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the second quarter. That well-timed hit on a completion over the middle forced a fumble Robert Quinn recovered.
Officials originally ruled it an incomplete pass and also threw a flag for a potential call for hitting a defenseless receiver. But the flag was picked up and a replay review confirmed the turnover that gave the Bears offense possession at the Buccaneers 27-yard line for a go-ahead touchdown drive.
“That’s just the mindset of this group, man,” Mack said. “It’s everybody going after the ball and trying to make a play. We made the play tonight. Kyle, man, he finally got a call to go his way.”
Even before kickoff, it was easy to attach heightened meaning to the game, to justifiably believe it didn’t belong in the standard “it’s still just one of 16 contests” compartment.
Any meeting with Brady brings added buzz and a more intense spotlight. But throughout Chicago, there was also a shared acknowledgment that the comfort of 4-1 would feel so very different from the anxiety of 3-2. Especially for a Bears team that has had great difficulty over the last half-decade beating quality opponents.
From 2015-19, only eight of the Bears’ 34 victories came against teams that later qualified for the postseason. And it’s fair to assume at this stage that the Detroit Lions, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons won’t be enjoying playoff football this winter. So the victory Thursday registers as more significant in that regard.
It’s also another victory for the Bears to embrace as they try to prove they still are a work in progress and not a finished product with enough offensive flaws and questions to invite a “pretender” label from the loudest skeptics.
Still, even with a lot of work to do to convince the masses that this is indeed a championship-caliber team, the Bears have navigated their way to a 4-1 start, their best record through five games since 2010.
“We’ve had some things go our way this year … where we’ve been resilient with how we’ve come through different situations,” Nagy said. “I said it a few weeks ago: There’s something special about this team. We find ways to win.”
At this stage, there’s importance to that. It’s a stabilizing quality that will buy the Bears more margin for error as they continue along the road.
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