Anatomy of a 21-point collapse against the Denver Broncos

Nineteen minutes, 11 seconds.

That’s all the game time that stood between the Chicago Bears and their first victory in 342 days Sunday at Soldier Field.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields, having the game of his NFL career to that point, had just danced around two Denver Broncos defenders to deliver a 2-yard touchdown strike to Khalil Herbert.

Bears players and fans — even general manager Ryan Poles caught on camera wearing a wide smile in his suite — emanated joy at a 21-point Bears lead, the end to their taxing losing streak within reach.

And then, thread by thread, it all unraveled.

A pair of Russell Wilson touchdown passes. A Fields fumble that the Broncos returned for a score. A Matt Eberflus decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 that went awry. Another big Wilson play against a Bears rookie cornerback. And a game-sealing interception thrown by Fields.

When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Broncos were the ones who left Soldier Field with their first victory of the season, 31-28. The Bears were left to explain the wild turn of events, and the “hurt” they felt at letting the game slip away.

“Emotions are just flowing everywhere,” Fields said.

Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson tries to escape Chicago Bears defensive end Yannick Ngakoue during the second quarter at Soldier Field on Oct. 1, 2023.

The decision in the middle of the collapse by Eberflus — the coach who has presided over this 14-game losing streak dating back to Oct. 24, 2022 — will be among the most scrutinized moments.

With 2:57 to play and the game tied 28-28, the Bears had a fourth-and-1 at the Broncos’ 18-yard line.

Bears kicker Cairo Santos hasn’t missed a kick in four field-goal attempts and three extra-point attempts this year. Since joining the Bears in 2020, he hasn’t missed a field goal under 40 yards. Sending Santos out seemed like an automatic three-point lead, but it would have given the Broncos time to respond.

The Bears were running the ball well in the second half — Herbert finished with 103 rushing yards — and Eberflus believed the Bears could get the first down, burn more time on the clock and then take the lead.

“It was a half a yard, so I felt great about getting that right there,” Eberflus said. “Every situation is different. You have to look at the game in its entirety. I think the way we were running the football and the confidence that we had on offense in that moment, I would say that we’re going to do that right there.”

Fields took the shotgun snap and handed off to Herbert. Broncos linebacker Alex Singleton shot through a hole to the inside of rookie right tackle Darnell Wright and took down Herbert for no gain.

The Bears were short, and the chance to take the lead evaporated.

“Ten out of 10 times, I know he’s calling that again,” Herbert said. “We’ve just got to get it done. I’ve got to get it done.”

On the Broncos’ next play, wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. got behind rookie cornerback Terell Smith, who was filling in for injured starter Jaylon Johnson. Mims caught Wilson’s pass for 48 yards. The Broncos netted 0 yards over the next three plays, but it didn’t matter.

Kicker Wil Lutz made a 51-yard field goal for a 31-28 lead.

“We let them back in the game,” Smith said. “We should have gotten stops coming out of halftime and put them away. We’ve just got to execute better.

“We’ve just got to keep the energy, keep playing fast and physical like we were in the first half, and we would have liked the outcome.”

Still, the Bears had a chance to tie it or take the lead again after the field goal.

But on third-and-13 with 38 seconds to play, Fields, who finished with a career-high 335 passing yards, sent a pass into the arms of Broncos safety Kareem Jackson, who fell to the ground following the interception to give the Broncos the win.

The play was the result of miscommunication between Fields and tight end Cole Kmet.

“The safety had depth,” Fields said. “I expected Cole to kind of go to his spot and sit down because of the safety’s depth. But Cole stuck to the rules. … So all in all, it’s my fault. Man coverage, he’s supposed to do what he did. I kind of wanted him to just play football and kind of just sit down in space. So that’s kind of why I threw it to his spot how I did.”

All of that came after the three touchdowns the Broncos scored in the second half to tie the game.

Wilson had a 4-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Johnson and a 13-yard scoring pass to Courtland Sutton to bring the Broncos within a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

On the following drive, Broncos linebacker Nik Bonitto came off the edge at Fields unblocked, and the football popped out of Fields’ hands into the air. Linebacker Jonathon Cooper scooped the ball up off one bounce and ran 35 yards for a touchdown and a tie game.

Denver Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper runs the ball in for a touchdown after Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields fumbled the ball during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Oct. 1, 2023.

“Good call by them,” Eberflus said. “They obviously had the double edge on that one. So Justin turned around, and he was right there. (Fields has) either got to dirt the ball or get it to where he feels the best way to get rid of it. But again I feel it was a good call by them.”

A number of other moments contributed to the collapse. Kmet pointed to discipline amid several penalties, including three on the drive that ended with Herbert getting stuffed on fourth-and-1.

The Bears now have to turn around and play another game on the road in four days when they take on the Washington Commanders on Thursday Night Football. The solace in that, at least, is the Bears will have little time to dwell on the soul-crushing comeback loss, which followed a blowout loss, which followed a different missed-opportunity loss, which followed a rivalry loss, which followed the No. 1 pick loss … and on and on.

They have to move on.

“We’ve got no choice,” Smith said. “We’ve got to.”

Meanwhile, the Days Since the Last Bears Win counter keeps going.

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