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.

Knowing that the first-place Minnesota Vikings (7-2) had already dispatched of Tampa Bay 35-7 Sunday afternoon, the Bears had to win to remain two games back in the NFC Central.

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.