They were too weary to do much more than raise their grimy arms in triumph, too relieved to keep from falling into their teammates' giddy embraces. This victory could not have been any bigger, any sweeter, any more dramatic for the Bears than if they had been in contention for anything more than respectability.
But that was all they were looking for, really. And it was enough.
Their dramatic 36-33 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins--clinched by a 35-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal after a Dan Marino fumble forced by Barry Minter--culminated the Bears' biggest comeback in 10 years. And if not the perfect antidote for what has ailed a sagging franchise, then it was nothing less than a quick hit of adrenaline.
In a game obscured by rescheduling and a late finish, played on a Monday night that was lowercased and on a field touched by baseball history just 24 hours earlier, the Bears would take home their own little piece of magic by finally bucking their own demons.
And they would revel in the moment.
"The curse is over, the curse is over," yelled safety Marlon Forbes, tackling the heroic Jaeger, still perfect on the year at 10 for 10 following his fourth field goal of the night.
"It doesn't get any better than this," crowed quarterback Erik Kramer, chugging merrily from a Gatorade bottle and calling it champagne. "No way."
No way this was supposed to happen after the Bears followed a common story line this season to find themselves trailing 33-18 with 7 minutes and 26 seconds remaining in regulation, a solid first half the only thing with which to console themselves.
Critical errors littered the second half. Most notably, a fumble by Kramer and recovery by former Bear Trace Armstrong at the Bears' 32-yard line with 9:03 remaining. It led to the apparent game-breaker--a 2-yard plunge by Karim Abdul-Jabbar to give the Dolphins a 15-point cushion.
But the Bears would score twice more--on an 8-yard strike from Kramer to Bobby Engram following a six-play, 80-yard drive that included a 54-yard pass play from Kramer to Curtis Conway, and in a sweet bit of irony, on a 25-yard pass from Kramer to Chris Penn and two-point conversion pass from Kramer to Engram with 1:25 left to force overtime.
"We had to win this game," said Chris Villarrial, returning to an energized and refreshingly healthy offensive line that carried the night. "And we just kept believing."
Trying desperately to avoid the worst start in franchise history, the 1-7 Bears began the overtime with their two offensive stars, Raymont Harris and Curtis Conway, on the sideline in various states of minor injury and exhaustion.
The 5-3 Dolphins, just as desperate to retain at least a share of the AFC East lead (which they would eventually retain thanks to New England's loss to Green Bay), would ultimately succumb to a Bears defense that came up with big plays all night.
Minter made the hit on Marino, and Carl Reeves, still filling in for Alonzo Spellman, slithered under the Dolphins and on top of the ball at the Miami 27 to set up the game-winner.
"I can't tell you what a relief this is," said Kramer, who finished with career highs for attempts and completions at 32 of 50 for 343 yards and two touchdowns. "I have never been through anything like this in my life. I think the entire team breathed a collective sigh of relief when we hit that field goal."
"This is huge for everybody," said Jaeger.
Among the relieved had to be Ricky Proehl. With three minutes left in the third quarter, the recently demoted but usually dependable receiver fumbled deep in Bears territory and at almost the exact spot where Cleveland second baseman Tony Fernandez committed his 11th-inning error to help seal the World Series for the Florida Marlins less than 24 hours earlier.
The significance was no doubt lost on those involved, particularly Terrell Buckley, who did not hesitate on his 22-yard runback for the touchdown and a 19-18 lead following a second failed two-point conversion.
"Our guys deserved to win this game," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt. "They made the plays they had to all night, and it would have been tough to leave this stadium with a loss after the players fought so hard."
John Thierry, with a huge first half, set the tone early with a vicious sack on Marino, forcing a fumble that was recovered on the Miami 20-yard-line by Bryan Cox, who flashed a gyrating celebration dance for his former fans.
It was only the fifth turnover of the year for the Dolphins, who they would soon pay as the offense followed through on its promise to capitalize on the defense's gifts, something it has had trouble doing for much of the season, particularly during Rick Mirer's regime.
Six plays later, Harris spun through the Dolphins' line for a 1-yard touchdown run and the early lead.
The defense would then stop an apparent scoring drive on Miami's next possession with an interception of Marino by safety Anthony Marshall in the end zone.
The play would snap Marino's streak of four straight games and 156 passes without an interception.
Kramer ended up looking more Marino-like than the real thing in the first half, completing 13 of 20 passes for 120 yards to six different receivers.
Nevertheless, the outplayed Dolphins would, like so many previous Bears opponents this season, make it a game on the scoreboard. Another big play, still one more Bears bugaboo this year, would account for a Miami score on the next possession and a 7-7 tie as third-string running back Jerris McPhail sprung loose over left guard for a 71-yard touchdown run, the first of his career.