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Strong second half has Bears speaking finish language

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler dives over top line score third quarter Sunday against Chargers. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler dives over the top of the line to score in the third quarter Sunday against the Chargers. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 22, 2011 8:17AM

During their four-game winning streak, the Bears had owned the first quarter, outscoring opponents 40-2.

But on Sunday, against the struggling San Diego Chargers, the Bears started slow: a three-and-out, then the defense conceding an 18-yard completion to Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and a 23-yard run to running back Ryan Mathews on a drive that ended with a 28-yard field goal.

By quarter’s end, the game was tied at 3.

More important than starting, though, is finishing.

And the Bears, after the game was tied at 17, answered with two touchdown drives in the third quarter, then intercepted two passes in the fourth to seal a 31-20 victory at Soldier Field.

“Great team win. That’s all I can say,” receiver Roy Williams said. “Bears football.”

The Bears (7-3) remain in a second-place tie with the Detroit Lions, three games behind the undefeated Green Bay Packers. Now the Bears head to Oakland, where they’ll face the 6-4 Raiders.

The Chargers entered the game with a four-game losing streak, but the Bears gave them confidence early.

Initially, the Bears defense had trouble with the Chargers’ three best offensive players: quarterback Philip Rivers, Gates and receiver Vincent Jackson. As he had the previous two games, Tillman shadowed the opposing team’s best receiver. But Jackson caught four passes for 96 yards in the first half, and he added a five-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

But the game turned late in the third quarter, when Tillman forced a fumble of Mathews then recovered the loose ball. Two plays later, Cutler tossed a rainbow pass toward the back of the end zone that receiver Johnny Knox ran under and brought in for a 24-yard touchdown.

“The Bears are an outstanding football team. I thought they played at a real high level, and, through most of the game, I thought we were able to match that,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said before noting the crucial turnover. “We just didn’t have enough firepower to get back into it.”

While Cutler had a strong day, completing 18 of 31 passes for 286 yards with two touchdowns, the team’s most impressive drive didn’t even yield any points. In the fourth quarter, they had a 12-play drive that chewed up seven-and-a-half minutes before a failed pass attempt by punter Adam Podlesh on fourth down near midfield.

“Offensive line finished the drive really well,” Cutler said. “That’s what you got to have, especially in November, December. You got to be able to finish games. You got to be able to run the football, even when the defense knows you’re going to run the football.”

Matt Forte and Marion Barber combined for nine carries and 26 yards on that final drive.

On the next play, though, Rivers was flushed out of the pocket by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, and he floated a pass down the right sideline that cornerback Corey Graham intercepted.

“We knew what type of football team we were playing,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “San Diego has been good for a long time… That was a heck of a football game.”

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