Celebrating 20th anniversary of Bears' miracle wins
Story by Larry Mayer
The 2001 season was a magical one for the Bears, who won the NFC Central Division championship with an impressive 13-3 record under coach Dick Jauron.
The highlight of the campaign came midway through the season when the Bears recorded two of the most dramatic comeback wins in franchise history on back-to-back Sundays at Soldier Field. Remarkably, both games ended with safety Mike Brown returning a deflected interception for a touchdown in overtime.
It's fitting that the Bears host the 49ers this Sunday at Soldier Field because that was their opponent in the first of those two games exactly 20 years today, Oct. 28, 2001.
The Bears rallied from a 28-9 third-quarter deficit to stun San Francisco 37-31 in overtime before 63,265 euphoric fans on Chicago's lakefront.
Brown returned an interception 33 yards for the winning touchdown on the first play of overtime as the surprising Bears improved to 5-1 with their fifth straight win. They overcame the loss of starting quarterback Jim Miller to a hip injury and two defensive TDs by the 49ers.
The Bears outscored San Francisco 28-3 over the final 23 minutes of the game, staging their biggest comeback since rallying from a 20-point deficit for a 27-26 win at Tampa Bay in 1987. The Bears did not lead the game until Brown crossed the goal line in overtime.
"That was unbelievable," Jauron said after the game. "I can't tell you how good it feels. I'm so happy for our football team. We made some bad plays, some bonehead plays, but I never sensed any letdown or any give-up in any of them. What a way to win a game."
The Bears scored 15 points in the final 4:08 of the fourth quarter to force overtime. The remarkable rally was fueled by top draft picks David Terrell and Anthony Thomas, former Michigan teammates who combined to score three touchdowns and a critical two-point conversion in the second half.
Terrell's first NFL TD, a 13-yard reception, drew the Bears to within 31-23 with 4:08 remaining. The first-round pick later made it 31-29 with :26 to play by snaring a 4-yard TD pass, tiptoeing along the sideline while taking a hit.
Thomas, who registered his second straight 100-yard game, then powered into the end zone on a dive play for the two-point conversion to tie it 31-31. Both Terrell's second TD and Thomas' two-point conversion were upheld after replay reviews.
"We played four quarters!" Terrell shrieked as he ran off the field. "We're the new Bears!"
Quarterback Shane Matthews led the comeback by completing 25 of 31 passes for 166 yards with three touchdowns after replacing Miller midway through the second quarter. Miller injured his hip when he was driven hard into the ground by blitzing linebacker Derek Smith.
On the first play of overtime from the 49ers' 20-yard line, quarterback Jeff Garcia threw a slant pass over the middle that was juggled by star receiver Terrell Owens into Brown's hands.
The Bears safety caught the ball waist high, glided to his right and followed a few blockers into the end zone, capping what was then the shortest overtime period in NFL history at 16 seconds. Brown was mobbed by jubilant teammates, touching off a wild celebration in the north end zone that appeared to spill over into the delirious crowd.
"It was great," said Bears cornerback R.W. McQuarters. "I thought Mike was probably going to jump into the stands. But we probably would have lost him if he had done that."
The Bears nearly lost Brown on the 49ers' first possession of the game when he suffered a sprained left knee. But the second-year safety returned two series later after a trip to the locker room and played the remainder of the game.
"I came in and talked to the trainers and they said it was up to me to go out," Brown said. "I felt pretty good. It really didn't enter my mind not to come back out there."
There was more than a little irony in how the game ended. In an embarrassing loss to the 49ers in San Francisco the previous December, Owens set an NFL record that has since been broken with 20 receptions. In the 2001 rematch at Soldier Field, he was held to six catches for 60 yards and had the game's most critical drop. It appeared that he sensed Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher approaching and momentarily took his eyes off the ball.
"His head turned away," Brown said. "We're a physical defense. If you look at the film, we've got some guys that hit and I'm sure he was thinking about that going across the middle. We've got some guys that will knock you out."
The Bears knocked out the 49ers by scoring the game's final 21 points in a 4:24 span to register an improbable victory.
"This has got to be an ESPN Classic right off the bat," said Miller, who watched the miraculous comeback unfold from the sideline after injuring his hip. "The only thing I was missing was a hot dog and a beer. I was a spectator like everybody else."
"This is unbelievable," Brown added. "It was a hard-fought game. I think the offense really won the game for us. They kept moving the ball and kept us in the game and got those eight points at the end of the game. You could tell the momentum totally shifted and we knew we were going to win the game."
An amazing encore
Any fans who left the 49ers game early—and there were quite a few—hopefully learned their lesson, because a week later history basically repeated itself. Seven days after shocking San Francisco, the Bears topped one of the most dramatic comeback wins in franchise history with an even more remarkable one that left players and fans shaking their heads in disbelief.
Trailing the Browns 21-7 in the final minute of the fourth quarter, Matthews threw two TD passes in the final :28 of regulation—the second on a Hail Mary as time expired—and Brown followed by returning an interception for a touchdown early in overtime for the second straight week to give the Bears a stunning 27-21 win.
"It's surreal; it really is," said Bears safety Tony Parrish. "Who would have thought, two weeks it would have come down the exact same way?"
“This defies imagination. If a book was written about it, I don’t think anyone would believe it. It seems like it’s fiction.” Bears safety Mike Brown
It seemed downright impossible most of the game. Before the Bears rallied, Matthews threw three interceptions, lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, was sacked five times and had six passes deflected at the line of scrimmage.
None of that mattered, however, in the waning seconds. Matthews cut the deficit to 21-14 with a 6-yard TD strike to Marty Booker with :28 left, capping an 8-play, 80-yard drive in just 1:24.
Linebacker Bobbie Howard followed by recovering the ensuing onside kick at the Browns' 47. It took several minutes to unpile the mass of humanity on top of Howard before officials awarded the ball to the Bears.
"I felt some hands tugging, but I had some people on me protecting me," Howard said. "I had possession the whole time. My teammates protected me and made sure I kept possession."
Two short completions to James Allen advanced the ball to the Cleveland 34 with :08 to play.
Matthews stepped up in the pocket and flung a Hail Mary pass about six yards deep in the end zone. Terrell leaped high and tipped the ball back toward the goal line. Trailing the play, Allen dove headlong and snared the pass about a foot off the ground, landing on Booker's legs with :00 showing on the clock.
"We practice that play a lot," Matthews said. "We try to throw it to a guy. If that guy can't catch it, his job is to tip it, and it just worked to perfection."
The Bears won the overtime coin toss but went three-and-out. On Cleveland's third play, Tim Couch's pass over the middle was deflected high into the air by Bryan Robinson. It floated into the hands of Brown, who returned it 16 yards for the winning touchdown. Brown, whose 33-yard interception return TD on the first play of overtime had defeated the 49ers a week earlier, dashed untouched into the end zone—and this time kept running through the tunnel to the locker room.
After Brown's second straight game-winning TD in overtime, teammates encouraged him to buy a lottery ticket or hop on the next plane to Las Vegas.
"This defies imagination," Brown said. "If a book was written about it, I don't think anyone would believe it. It seems like it's fiction. I don't know how to explain it: higher power, luck, destiny, whatever you want to call it."
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mike Brown's back-to-back overtime pick-sixes, senior writer Larry Mayer ranks the Bears' top 10 most impressive feats in consecutive games.