In the wake of their egregious late-game sins in losses to the Steelers and Ravens, coach Matt Nagy and the Bears went to church Thursday seeking forgiveness and redemption.
That might be overdramatizing it.
More simply, they went into what Nagy calls “church mode” to seal a victory over the lowly Lions. That term could come from teams typically kneeling as they run the clock down before they try a game-winning field goal, but Nagy said it’s because the head coach prays that the field goal goes through.
The Bears got the ball at their 21-yard line, down 14-13 with 8:30 left, and drove to the Lions’ 4 with 1:08 left. Then they kneeled three times to set up Cairo Santos’ 28-yard game-winner as time expired, leaving no chance to be upended in the final moments again.
In doing so, Nagy turned down the Lions potentially handing them a free touchdown in order to get the ball back. He bet on Santos, which required some faith after he flubbed a 53-yarder in the third quarter.
“You start seeing the clock tick down and see their timeout situation, and now you start saying, ‘OK, are we in our church mode?’ ” Nagy said Friday. “It’s a risk. If you don’t make that field goal, I’m the one that has to go up to that podium. [But] usually it ends up working for you.”
In this case, it did — much to the relief of Nagy and everyone else at Halas Hall bearing the weight of a five-game losing streak.
Between quarterback Andy Dalton converting two key third downs and running back David Montgomery gaining just enough yards to keep the clock going, the Bears had the longest (time-wise) drive to finish off a win by an NFL team this season. They snapped the ball with eight seconds or less on the play clock on all but two plays when the clock was running.
Nagy started sweating when Dalton’s first kneel-down went a little too deep, losing three yards, but he was concerned chiefly that anything other than taking a knee might result in a touchdown with ample time for the Lions to respond.
“Defenses have calls in their playbook where they not only let you score, but they grab you and throw you in the end zone,” Nagy said, explaining why he felt it was safest to kneel. “[But] we were like, ‘Damn, Andy, don’t keep losing too many yards on these QB kneels.’ But being at the 4 when that happened, we still felt pretty good about it.”
The drive nearly fell flat early, which could’ve been disastrous for the Bears if the Lions had been able to force a punt and score, but Dalton came through with a seven-yard pass to tight end Cole Kmet on second-and-six from the Bears’ 25. He followed by converting a third-and-five at his 37 by hitting Damiere Byrd for 13 yards.
That put the Bears in strong position at midfield, which allowed Nagy to begin weighing a plan to end the game.
Both of those passes illustrated what Dalton’s experience and expertise bring to the Bears.
He had to get rid of the ball to Kmet quickly as pressure closed in on him, and his accuracy was vital with Kmet being covered closely. On the pass to Byrd, Dalton was just about to get sacked when he bought himself a millisecond with a pump fake. It was enough to escape on a rollout to the right, and he threw across his body to the left to hit Byrd with safety Will Harris covering him tightly.
Dalton’s other big conversion came on third-and-four at the Lions’ 11. That was after Lions coach Dan Campbell’s fiasco of getting penalized for calling back-to-back timeouts. Byrd ran a crisp route to the center of the field, stopping sharply at seven yards to give himself space in front of three defenders, and Dalton had great timing on the pass.
Had the Bears not picked up that first down, the Lions had one timeout left and could’ve gotten the ball back with about a minute left after the field goal.
On Montgomery’s big run on that drive — a 12-yarder on second-and-10 that took the Bears to the Lions’ 38-yard line — he and the offensive line delivered.
Left tackle Jason Peters bulldozed outside linebacker Julian Okwara completely out of the picture, and center Sam Mustipher held off defensive tackle John Penisini just enough to clear a path for Montgomery. Here’s something that sets Montgomery apart from other runners: He read his blocking perfectly. He started running behind Peters, then cut to his right and had a comfortable lane up the middle.
The entire drive was the Bears at their best, which is something that hasn’t been said often this season. Nagy made the right calls, the players did their part and they marched out of Ford Field with a 16-14 victory.