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Dormant passing game awakens as Matt Barkley sparks Bears victory

After a slow start, Matt Barkley thrived in the elements, completing 11-of-18 passes for 192 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions and a 97.5 passer rating, in the Bears' 26-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at snowy Soldier Field. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The home crowd at Soldier Field gave the Bears a Bronx cheer after Matt Barkley’s eight-yard pass to Deonte Thompson on third-and-five from the Bears’ 24 with 1:43 left in the first half against the 49ers on Sunday — a derisive acknowledgement that the Bears had re-discovered the forward pass.

It was Barkley’s first completion of the game and only his fourth attempt, as the Bears appeared to give in to the snowy conditions and slog their way through a meaningless December game. And they likely only passed out of necessity, because the 49ers, after calling time out following Bears running plays on first and second down, were about to get the ball back and looking for more after scoring on their previous two drives.

As it turned out, that pass not only kept the drive alive, but ignited an offensive renaissance. Barkley hit Thompson for 11 yards, then Cam Meredith for 28 over the middle. After an incompletion, Barkley threw a 17-yard pass to Meredith to the 12. Barkley’s pass to tight end Daniel Brown in the end zone drew a pass interference penalty — funny how it works like that.

Rookie running back Jordan Howard scored from the 1 on the next play to complete an eight-play 81-yard drive that gave the Bears a 7-6 lead and a momentum boost that energized the entire team and snowballed into a 26-6 victory.

“I could tell we were playing for each other at that point,” Barkley said. “Guys were striving for every yard. They were winning their routes and had great protection across the board. That’s when we started to really gain momentum.”

The Bears used the run to set up the pass. Jordan Howard’s success early in the game — 37 yards on his first nine carries — had the 49ers’ defense looking for more and leaving them in man-to-man coverage on the outside. The Bears took advantage. From that first completion to Thompson, the Bears out-gained the 49ers 239-11 in taking a 24-6 lead early in the fourth quarter and coasting to victory.

“What surprised me was they were able to get open and connect at times,” 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “We thought it was going to be a running play throughout the whole game. But … they would take shots and convert on those.”

Josh Bellamy added four receptions for 93 yards in the second half, including three catches for 77 yards that led to two touchdowns in the third quarter that gave the Bears a 21-6 lead.

“We were getting some man-to-man,” Bellamy said. “CJ [receivers coach Curtis Johnson] tells us all the time, ‘If you can’t beat man-to-man, you’re going to be working at Popeye’s. You got to make plays.”

Once the Bears started passing, the wide receivers, who combined for 10 drops last week, were eager to build on the momentum.

“Feed us,” Thompson said. “We already wanted to redeem ourselves from last week, so we were like, ‘Feed us, man,’ That’s what we kept screaming on the sideline. We were telling the quarterback in the huddle, ‘Feed us. Feed us. Let us do it.’”

Barkley, who was 0-for-3 until that final drive of the half, was 10-of-14 for 186 yards and a 113.7 passer rating in that game-turning stretch. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick was 0-for-3 for no yards and a 39.6 rating in the same span.

“That’s a salute to [Barkley], because he’s from Cali, too, like [Kaepernick],” Meredith said. “So it says a lot about his preparation, his mental toughness. It was great to see him go out there, get on the same page with us and put the ball where we could get it easily.”