There is no telling the kind of free-fall a defeat could have generated. No telling the kind of damage to the Bears' psyche, the loss of confidence and the self-doubt that could have resulted had several improbable events not occurred in the Metrodome Monday night.

No telling and no need with a reprieve otherwise known as a 15-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, their third straight in the Vikings' home.

Clearly, tempers were frayed as coaches and players openly sniped at each other on the sideline, the sort of moodiness that only served as evidence of the precarious nature of a season and a team now looking only to survive each week.

"There was a lot of screaming, a lot of frustration and everybody just wanting to win so bad," said a drained but exuberant coach Dave Wannstedt. "I don't know how we stack up against the other teams in the league, but I do know that no teams plays harder than this group. This team deserved to win."

But, oh, how easily it could have lost.

After scoring all 15 of their points in the first half, the Bears appeared to assure the outcome when rookie Walt Harris blocked a 48-yard field goal attempt by Scott Sisson with 3 minutes 47 seconds remaining after a 19-play drive engineered by Warren Moon's replacement, Brad Johnson.

But on the ensuing play, Vikings tackle John Randle tipped a pass by Dave Krieg, which was then intercepted by Jason Fisk at midfield with 3:02 left. Needing only a field goal to go ahead, the Vikings drove to the Bears' 35, where on third and 14 Bryan Cox forced and recovered a fumble by Johnson with 1:47 remaining to end the Bears' suffering.

"With all the (stuff) shoveled on top of us, some we deserved, some we didn't, getting guys back healthy now, there's no telling what can happen," said Cox, who was nearly sidelined with a back injury. "This was really big because we said this was the start of our season. We can't do anything about the last seven."

Now 3-5, the Bears are hardly in playoff contention, but they did do something Monday they had not done since their opener against Dallas, and that was to receive as close to a total team effort as possible.

The Bears' defense was masterful against a Vikings running game that lost Robert Smith late in the first quarter and never recovered, ending up with a franchise-low 11 yards for the night.

Their special-teams play was nothing short of dramatic, starting slowly with missed field goals by Jeff Jaeger of 44 and 46 yards, then rebounding with Jaeger kicks from 41 and 44; sustaining their field position with outstanding kick returns by Bobby Engram; and finally sealing their fate with a blocked punt by Kevin Miniefield in the first quarter resulting in a safety and Harris' block in the fourth.

"We all came up big," said Miniefield. "Before the game, we talked about how we had to win with offense, defense and special teams. This is what you play for, we did it, and we came up with the win."

Just as rewarding in victory was the first-half performance by the offense, which relied heavily and uncharacteristically on the arm of Krieg, who finished with 187 yards on 23 of 35 passing, including a surreal second quarter in which he completed 15 of 20 passes for 118 yards. "A win like this can propel you for the rest of the year," Krieg said. "When times are tough like they are now, you have to win the tough games."

Also satisfying for the Bears had to be the return of Raymont Harris (with an average of 4.1 yards per carry) and Jim Flanigan from injury. "The great thing about today is that everyone contributed, we made big plays and we didn't fold," Cox said.

Monday night also served as a rejuvenation in several areas, from the tight end position, where Keith Jennings was as close to full strength as he has been all year and Ryan Wetnight had a superb game; to a sack-starved defense that registered five for minus-29 yards; to safety Mark Carrier, who snagged his first interception since the last game of the '94 season to set up a 44-yard field goal by Jaeger with 9 seconds to go in the first half.

"The dogs are called off for one week now," Carrier said. "This just goes to show that you can't be afraid of what's going to happen. You could see it in everybody's eyes how badly we wanted to win. This just makes everyone feel a little relaxed."