A Bears team whose playoff possibilities seemed limitless less than two weeks ago continued its free fall to oblivion Sunday night with a galling 31-28 overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
"That hurts," said Bears coach Mike Ditka, wincing as the words dripped out of his mouth.
Bengals kicker Jim Breech quieted a Soldier Field crowd of 56,120 with his 36-yard field goal with 6 minutes 21 seconds left in overtime.
The field goal was the ninth straight game-winner in overtime for Breech, dating back to 1980 when he beat the Bears 17-14.
The eerie silence in the Bears' locker room capped the macabre evening that left the Bears with a 4-5 record and virtual guaranteed exclusion from the NFL's postseason tournament.
"I'm not thinking about that," said Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong. "I'm just thinking about next week and trying to win another football game (at Tampa Bay). We're in a pretty deep hole."
Some Bears stared aimlessly into their lockers, others methodically undressed and headed for the showers. Disconsolate defensive tackle Steve McMichael sat in front of his locker and held his stomach, either doubled over in pain from the excruciating physical hits on the field or the devastation of the loss.
The Bears blew a 21-7 halftime lead and a 28-14 advantage late in the third quarter as the Bengals won their second straight and improved to 4-5.
"If you can't win a football game like that, then you don't have a right to win," said Ditka. "We have a lot of people who try hard and we have some who don't look like they understand what it's all about. No pointing fingers. It's just a team game."
Ditka told his players some lineup changes would be made.
A 23-yard fourth-down pass from Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason to rookie Carl Pickens, followed by Breech's extra point, tied the game 28-28 with :59 left in regulation.
The Bears drove to the Bengals' 35 in the waning seconds, but Kevin Butler's 52-yard field-goal attempt into a 12-m.p.h wind with :03 left fell short.
"This is as sweet a victory as I've ever been around," said first-year Bengals coach David Shula.
Now they are three games back, not counting the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage owned by the Vikings.
"That's unbelievable," said Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who was intercepted twice and completed only 11 of 28 passes for 168 yards and one TD. "I have never been more disgusted with a game than this.
"I feel like we really let everybody down. We let the coaches down; the coaches did a great job. Every chance we had, we just lost it."
The Bengals took a 7-0 lead with 7:23 left in the first period when Derrick Fenner capped a 59-yard drive with a 2-yard TD run.
Cincinnati occupied 4:21 en route to the score that featured a 32-yard pass from Esiason (16 of 29 for 172 yards and three TDs) to rookie Craig Thompson after a perfectly executed play fake that beat free safety Mark Carrier.
The Bears countered with a 10-play, 72-yard scoring drive that saw Darren Lewis (72 yards on 10 carries) rush 50 yards on three carries, including a 15- yard TD sweep with :39 left in the first period.
"Darren Lewis played his heart out," said Ditka. "Mo Douglass played his heart out (on special teams)."
The Bears took their first lead on a 46-yard TD pass from Harbaugh to Anthony Morgan. It was Morgan's third reception of the season and two have gone for touchdowns.
The Bears regained possession when Esiason's pass intended for Tim McGee was picked off by linebacker Mike Singletary. It was Singletary's first interception since Nov. 20, 1988. The turnover gave the Bears the ball on the Bengals' 26.
The Bears marched 74 yards on 10 plays to roll to a 21-7 lead with 5:13 to go in the half. Mark Green leaped into the end zone on fourth and 1.
The Bears turned the ball over in the third period when Harbaugh's pass intended for Wendell Davis bounced off his chest and into the arms of Ricardo McDonald.
The Bengals took over at their own 40 with 8:25 left in the period. Less than two minutes later, Esiason passed to Eric Ball, who eluded cornerback Lemuel Stinson at the 32-yard line and broke Carrier's tackle at the 5 en route to the end zone.
But Lewis returned Lee Johnson's ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest Bears kickoff return since Willie Gault returned one 99 yards on Sept. 29, 1985, against Washington.
Lewis eluded several tacklers on his return and received a key block from Tim Ryan on Johnson. The TD increased the Bears' lead to 28-14.
"I'm not concerned with what I did personally," said Lewis. "I played my best and we came up short."
Neal Anderson (35 yards on 12 carries) gave the ball back to the Bengals when he fumbled at the Cincinnati 21 with 3:29 left in the third quarter.
The Bengals converted the turnover into a 1-yard TD pass from Esiason to Thompson to make the score 28-21 with :05 left in the third period.
Harbaugh's second interception of the night wound up in the hands of cornerback Leonard Wheeler, who returned the ball 12 yards to the Bears' 35. The ball had been tipped by Eric Thomas.
"It's hard to throw the ball back against the grain. He was just trying to make something happen," said Ditka. "I don't have any fault with that. That's never a problem. Balls hit us right dead in the hands and we can't catch them. That's embarrassing."
The Bears, who have the worst fourth-quarter defense in the NFL, saw their lead evaporate on Esiason's fourth-down pass to Pickens, who outleaped Stinson in the end zone to make the grab.
"It's pretty hard to have double coverage when they have three guys on the other side of the field," said Ditka. "It's a joke play. You've got to cover the other three guys. The backside of that is usually man-to-man."
The Bears took the ensuing kickoff and marched to the Bengals' 35-yard line, but Butler's 52-yard field-goal attempt fell short.
"Both sides of the ball-offense, defense-we just didn't respond late in the game," said Armstrong. "We all had opportunities to make plays."
Butler had missed a 47-yard field goal in the third period when the ball caromed high off the left upright.
Bengals running back Harold Green led all rushers with 117 yards on 25 carries. The Bears' Tom Waddle had a game-high seven catches for 78 yards.