As Devin Hester sprinted down the field, Bears fans got to their feet, figuring victory was at hand.
Hester didn't catch Kyle Orton's deep pass in overtime Thursday night, but the Saints helped him out.
Safety Roman Harper, beaten badly on the play, mugged Hester as the ball arrived. The resulting 38-yard pass-interference penalty put the Bears in position for Robbie Gould's 35-yard field goal, which gave them a 27-24 overtime victory over New Orleans in a must-win game at Soldier Field.
"It was a stutter-and-go," Hester said. "I froze the safety, and he bit on it. Then I just ran right past him. I was hoping [a penalty] was going to happen."
"It's a great opportunity to get a field goal to win the game, but at the same time it's a total team effort," Gould said. "The offense battled back. And the coin toss went our way. The offense played well just to get the ball down in range."
The Bears (8-6) needed this one in the worst way after squandering a 21-7 halftime lead. It kept their playoff hopes alive, although the road to the postseason got a little tougher.
Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, who were supposed to serve four-game suspensions for violating the league's anti-doping policy, apparently will finish the season after a federal judge in Minnesota extended an injunction against the suspensions. In essence, the NFC North-leading Vikings (8-5) will be at full strength for their playoff push, and they already hold all tiebreakers against the Bears.
"I think it's funny that a Minnesota judge gets to rule on that," Adewale Ogunleye said. "I think he has a conflict of interest in that ruling. But we can only control what we can control. And we took care of business.
"Like I said during the week, we'll be fans of whoever's playing Minnesota the next couple of weeks."
The Bears made Thursday a lot harder on themselves after Danieal Manning got them off to a flying start with an 83-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff. Three turnovers, including two interceptions of Orton, resulted in scores.
Orton's second interception came with 5 minutes 25 seconds left in regulation and the Bears leading 21-17. His pass intended for Desmond Clark ended up in the hands of Saints linebacker Scott Fujita.
"I saw the guy, made a terrible decision," Orton said. "At that point, your mind is just focusing on that drive, those plays, trying to get your team in the end zone."
Fujita returned the interception 17 yards to the Bears' 31, setting up Drew Brees' 11-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston and giving the Saints their first lead at 24-21.
The Bears had 3 minutes 5 seconds left in regulation to win or at least tie. They settled for latter as Orton, completing 8 of 11 for 61 yards, drove the offense to a first-and-goal from the Saints' 9 with 12 seconds left. Orton first threw incomplete to tight end Greg Olsen, then was sacked by Sedrick Ellis on second down. Fortunately for the Bears, they had a timeout or the clock would have expired.
Gould came in and nailed a 28-yarder to send it into overtime. The Bears won the coin toss, took over at their own 30-yard line and marched 52 yards in six plays, the payoff Orton's deep pass to Hester on third-and-7 from the Bears 47.
"He ran a great route," Orton said. "The ball hung up in the air a little bit, and he made a nice play to go up and go back after the ball and get the call."
Hester's non-catch might have been the best offensive play on a night the Bears' offense struggled. Orton (24 of 40, 172 yards) had a passer rating of 49.2. Rookie running back Matt Forte, sidelined after his first carry with a sore toe, returned to the lineup but had season-lows in yards (34) and carries (11).
The Bears' defense kept them in game, for the most part, limiting a Saints team that began the night averaging a league-best 405.9 yards. Brees was less than spectacular, completing 24 of 43 passes for 232 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. His rating was 67.2.
The big picture for the Bears was their ability to remain in the playoff picture.
"Huge. Absolutely huge," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "We can't lose.
"I never thought things looked bleak for us. Why? Because I believe."