Most NFL games seemingly are decided by a handful of plays, and the Bears' thrilling 22-19 comeback win over the Chargers Monday night in San Diego was no exception.
The following is a closer look at five key plays (listed chronologically) that helped the Bears escape Qualcomm Stadium with an improbable victory:
1) On third-and-goal from the 1 early in the fourth quarter, rookie running back Jeremy Langford took a handoff from Jay Cutler and powered into the end zone behind left guard Vladimir Ducasse for a touchdown.
Langford's third rushing TD of season drew the Bears to within 16-14 and capped an impressive 15-play, 93-yard drive that featured four successful third-down conversions.
The Bears likely would have settled for a field goal to cut the deficit to 16-10 had Langford been stopped short. But the TD provided a tremendous boost, especially after the normally reliable Robbie Gould had missed field-goal tries of 47 and 34 yards.
The Bears didn't have any wide receivers on the field for the third-and-one play. Tight ends Martellus Bennett and Khari Lee were on the line of scrimmage and Zach Miller was lined up in front of Langford in the backfield.
Defensive lineman Mitch Unrein was used as an additional blocker, a role he filled with the Broncos when Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase served in the same position in Denver. Unrein went in motion from right to left, slowed to a stop but kept his feet moving. It appeared that he was moving slightly forward when the ball was snapped. But fortunately for the Bears, no penalty was called.
ESPN rules analyst Gerry Austin, an NFL referee for 16 seasons, explained on the broadcast that Unrein did not commit a foul because he was only moving in place. But analyst (and fiery former NFL coach) Jon Gruden disagreed, saying: "Gerry, I'd have met you at the 20-yard line screaming at you. That's a penalty. You and I would go at it."
2) The Chargers responded following Langford's TD, marching from their own 20 to the Chicago 8, thanks in part to a 40-yard completion from Philip Rivers to tight end Antonio Gates, a future Hall of Famer who appears to have slowed down considerably.
On third-and-goal from the 8, Rivers rolled to his right and hit Gates in the back of the end zone for an apparent touchdown that would have restored San Diego's two-score lead with 8:36 left in the fourth quarter. But right guard D.J. Fluker was penalized for being illegally downfield, nullifying the TD.
The Chargers eventually settled for Josh Lambo's 22-yard field goal, which increased their lead to 19-14 but kept the Bears in the game.
On the TD that was erased by Fluker's penalty, Rivers initially looked for running back Danny Woodhead in the left flat, but he was covered tightly by safety Adrian Amos. Unrein looped around outside linebacker Pernell McPhee on a stunt and flushed Rivers out of the pocket. The Chargers quarterback retreated to the 20 and sprinted to his right.
Rivers pulled up at the 10 and flipped the ball to Gates in the right corner of the end zone. But Fluker had anticipated that Rivers would continue running and had already reached the 3, making it an easy penalty call for the head linesman.
It didn't appear that Rivers would have any options on the play, but Gates somehow slipped past undrafted rookie Bryce Callahan, who had tight coverage earlier on the play.
3) Still trailing 19-14 in the game's waning moments, the Bears needed a big play—and Miller delivered what may ultimately be the catch of the NFL season. The unheralded reserve reached up and plucked Cutler's laser beam out of the air with his right hand, turning the play into a spectacular go-ahead 25-yard touchdown.
Miller lined up just outside right tackle Kyle Long on the second-and-10 play. The Chargers had a safety over the top, but he sprinted toward the sideline right after the snap to help cover receiver Alshon Jeffery. Stepping up in the pocket, Cutler waited until Miller cleared linebacker Donald Butler and rifled the ball over the middle.
It was Miller's first TD reception since a 14-yarder on Oct. 2, 2011 when he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Prior to this season, he had not appeared in an NFL regular-season game since 2011 due to a series of injuries.
4 and 5) After Miller's touchdown and Langford's two-point conversion run gave the Bears their first lead of the game at 22-19, it was time for the defense to secure the win.
Needing at least a field goal to force overtime, the Chargers took over at their own 20 with 3:19 remaining. San Diego quickly marched to the Chicago 46 with little resistance as Rivers completed 3 of 4 passes, hitting Gates for 6 yards, Woodhead for 16 yards and receiver Javontee Herndon for 12 yards.
But that's when seldom-used outside linebacker Lamarr Houston stepped up, sacking Rivers on back-to-back snaps for losses of 8 and 10 yards. That pushed the Chargers from the brink of field-goal range to third-and-23 at their own 41. Rivers followed with a pair of incompletions, enabling the Bears to clinch the victory.
Houston entered the game with just two sacks in 15 contests in two seasons with the Bears and matched that total in a couple minutes during crunch time Monday night. He recorded the first sack out of a three-point stance and the second out of a two-point stance, beating right tackle Joe Barksdale on both game-changing plays.