NASHVILLE—Sometimes it doesn't demand domination on defense. It doesn't require killer instinct on offense. It doesn't even take a 33-yard field goal to stay its course in the final minutes of the game.
Sometimes, just when fate is staring you down again, all it takes is for the other guys to look like complete buffoons.
"Finally," said Bears quarterback Erik Kramer, "we weren't the ones making all the mistakes."
With two kickers, the wrong holder, 12 men on the field and ultimately no chance to convert a 49-yard field goal that ended up being blocked anyway, the Oilers failed to tie the game with 21 seconds remaining and sent Bears skipping off the field with a 23-20 victory.
That's two victories in a row and three in their last four games for the 3-5 Bears heading into a week off, and if you don't think that's significant, simply recall just four weeks ago when they were 0-for-September and fans were looking draftward.
Now--brace yourself--they're even talking playoffs, albeit cautiously at the season's midpoint, and not apologizing. "We have to at least count on hanging around, and that's what this win did for us," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt.
Sunday was not only the Bears' first road win in four tries this season, but also only their fourth victory in 20 away games since 1995. Like everything else, it did not come easily.
The Bears never trailed, but they were tied 10-10 and 20-20 and never could shake a team that at times terrorized their offense and shredded their defense.
"I'm happy we won the game," said Kramer, "but they got us pretty good on offense."
The Bears ran better as a group--with rookie Curtis Enis still coming off the bench but getting the bulk of the work for 85 yards on 21 carries. And they came up with some big receptions. But 17 of their points and their only two touchdowns came off turnovers that put them once at the Tennessee 1-yard line and the other time at the Oilers' 24.
Left to its own devices, the Bears' offense chugged along well enough, but never seriously threatened to put the game away.
"I'd love for us to come out in every phase and play awesome and actually blow a team out," guard Todd Perry said. "That's what we haven't done yet. But the key to winning in the NFL is playing as a team and having each unit pick each other up when need be.
"We've done that two weeks in a row, and it's a lot to build on. This is how teams get on a roll. That's the way it is in the NFL."
Neither the offense nor the defense actually carried the load Sunday as much as they simply leaned on each other. "We bent a whole lot, but we didn't break," said defensive end John Thierry, whose forced fumble at the Oilers' 1 led to an early 7-0 lead. "We didn't play our best ball, but we came through when we needed it."
Actually, the defense bent a lot. Like a pretzel when Oilers quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George had the ball. The ends, in particular, hurting by the absence of starters Mark Thomas and, in the second half, Shawn Lee, looked particularly vulnerable as George romped for 137 yards on 21 carries and McNair gained 42 yards on four carries.
"You can't overplay him, you can't underplay him," Thierry said of McNair. "You just do what you can to try to slow him down and get him on the ground. He's a guy who can hurt you."
And indeed he did in leading the Oilers to 10 fourth-quarter points on drives of 70 and 76 yards, which resulted in a 19-yard field goal by Al Del Greco and a 7-yard scamper around left end by running back Rodney Thomas, respectively, to tie the game 20-20.
Earlier in the fourth, the Bears had squandered a muffed catch by Oilers punt returner Mike Archie and recovery by Ty Hallock at the Tennessee 45 with a missed 34-yard field goal by Jeff Jaeger. But returner Glyn Milburn bailed out the Bears on their next possession with a 47-yard kickoff return to the Bears' 45.
Kramer found Conway for an 18-yard reception on the first play of the series, but then turned conservative and ended up falling short on a quarterback draw on a third-and-8 from the Tennessee 23. This time Jaeger connected on a 33-yarder, his third field goal of the day, to give the Bears a 23-20 edge. But with 1:03 remaining, the momentum still seemed to reside with the Oilers.
"I was thinking we probably could've made a couple plays to loosen them up throwing the ball," Kramer said.
Ultimately, it didn't matter. The Oilers got as far as the Bears' 31 on a nifty series of passes, laterals and an inexplicable 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on Carl Reeves for hitting McNair out of bounds after forcing him out with a 1-yard loss.
But with a colossal goof bound to go down in Oilers infamy, they sent two kickers onto the field to attempt a 49-yard field goal and ended up with the wrong guy, punter and long-kicker Craig Hentrich getting it blocked by Jim Flanigan anyway.
"I'm not going to say we're on a roll exactly," Flanigan said. "We're still a 3-5 team, and we still have a long way to go. But we certainly have more momentum and confidence than we did two weeks ago. That's something."