PITTSBURGH—It was right there in front of them. Again. This time with the freaky hand of fate that hangs around places like Three Rivers Stadium, it turned a deflected pass by Erik Kramer on third-and-long into a diving completion by Curtis Conway and a first down with time ebbing.
Finally, it appeared, a break. "Immaculate Deflection." Read all about it.
the Bears the Bears, a team that, for now anyway, is just good enough to suffer two heartbreaking losses in two weeks to playoff-caliber teams.
"We could easily be 2-0 if not for a couple of mistakes," said Kramer. "But we're not."
No, they're not.
On a steamy Sunday afternoon, the Bears lost 17-12 to Pittsburgh in the Steelers' home opener because they allowed Jerome Bet-tis to break loose for a 42-yard run in the second quarter that led to a touchdown. They lost because rookie tight end Alonzo Mayes lost a fumble in the third quarter and had another pass bounce off one hand with 1 minute 22 seconds remaining.
They lost because they found themselves in too many third-down situations from which they could not escape, and because on their very last one, the one that killed them with just under a minute to play, Kramer threw an interception to Carnell Lake with Conway sprawled on the turf.
"You just have to keep rolling with the punches, but it's tough in this league, it's really tough," said Bears cornerback Tom Carter. "We can't have faith if we keep playing the way we are in these tough fourth quarters."
For the second straight week, the Bears lost a game they could have and, in their minds anyway, should have won.
"That's what separates the elite teams like Green Bay and San Francisco," said safety Marty Carter. "When they're in position to win, they do."
Decent teams do it too. But the Bears are not good enough, coach Dave Wannstedt said, to overcome these mistakes. But, he added more hopefully than defiantly, "We're closing the gap."
The Bears could have won Sunday because wide receiver Bobby Engram used speed no one credits him with having to beat Dewayne Washington downfield in the second quarter, cradle Kramer's pass and then skip over Washington for a 54-yard touchdown to give the Bears the early lead.
They could have won because rookie Curtis Enis ran for 94 yards on 22 carries against the best run defense in the league last season in continuing to make a strong argument to replace Edgar Bennett in the starting lineup.
They could have won because demoted defensive end Mark Thomas had two big sacks, because the Bears more or less contained Steelers do-it-all quarterback Kordell Stewart, and because Tom Carter played like the veteran they pay him to be with an interception that set up a 19-yard field goal by Jeff Jaeger in the second quarter.
They could have won because punter Todd Sauerbrun finally seems to understand the power he has to influence a game in putting the Steelers in several seemingly desperate situations.
"I just think this is a team that has confidence in itself and once we do get a win under our belt, who's to say where we can go?" asked veteran offensive lineman James Williams. "Once the younger players get a taste of a win and realize how good it feels, who's to say?"
Until now, the younger players have mostly taken turns breaking their hearts. Mayes' fumble midway through the third with the Bears trailing 10-9 gave the Steelers the ball on the Bears 27. Four plays later, a 13-yard pass from Stewart found Andre Coleman, who rolled into the end zone for the Steelers' final score.
"I never had possession of it," said Mayes of his fumble. "If I did have possession, I wouldn't have fumbled the ball. I could have taken that hit from (Levon) Kirkland. I'm not a person who fumbles the ball once I have possession of it."
On the Bears' final series, that was not the problem. Under heavy pressure on a first down from the Pittsburgh 16, Kramer found Mayes at about the 7-yard line, but the rookie couldn't make a one-handed catch.
"If I could have seen it a tenth of a second earlier, I could have gotten my right hand up and had a chance," said the agreeable rookie. "I tried to bat it back to myself, but I couldn't. It was a bad angle on the pass and a bad angle on the route."
The Bears still had time, with 1:18 remaining, but on second-and-10 Enis was stopped for no gain. On third down Kramer was intercepted on a play in which he said he never saw Lake.
"We keep waiting for the last minute to make something happen," said Conway. "Last week it was the defense's chance to win, and this week it was the offense's and we still have two losses."
"I hope and I think our players believe that if we go out there and we do things right that we'll win this week in Tampa," said Wannstedt, "and we'll look back and say, `Hey, it doesn't take much to get this thing flipped.' But we need to get it flipped and get a win."
With 15 defeats in their last 19 regular-season games, the image of an overturned car or a turtle flipped on its shell is as appropriate a way as any to describe the Bears.
"If you look at the teams that do well in the NFL," said defensive end Shawn Lee, "it's about momentum, getting it rolling, getting it started. That's what we need. We have to establish a starting point, a building point in order to get to the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl. You can't focus on hanging in there with teams. We have to focus on beating teams' brains out."
First things first.