Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas catches a 10-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow in the fourth quarter Sunday that cut the Bears’ lead to 10-7. | Justin Edmonds~Getty Images
Updated: January 13, 2012 8:18AM
DENVER — Through three quarters, the Bears’ defense pitched a shutout, limiting the Denver Broncos to 150 yards.
Then with nine minutes left, safety Craig Steltz sacked and forced a fumble of Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow that defensive end Israel Idonije recovered.
But the Broncos — without timeouts — rallied in the last five minutes to tie the game, then defeated the Bears 13-10 in overtime on a 51-yard field goal by Matt Prater.
“If someone told me that was going to happen — that our defense was going to blow a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter — I would have slapped them, especially how we were playing and flying around,” defensive tackle Henry Melton said. “Just to have it end like that was devastating.”
Through three quarters, Tebow was 3-for-16 for 45 yards, including an interception by cornerback Charles Tillman. The Bears’ defense applied steady pressure, sacking him three times, and largely limited his ability to run (seven carries, 42 yards).
But in the last 41/2 minutes, the Bears mostly employed the cover-2 defense, which is designed to prevent explosive plays. The longest plays were two 19-yard completions to receiver Matthew Willis. But Tebow went 18-for-24 for 191 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime, gladly taking what the defense was giving him.
Bears defenders admitted the altitude affected them, but they refused to use that as an excuse. The greater issue occurred on second-and-three from the Bears’ 10-yard line.
On that play, according to a defensive player, the call from the sideline was a single-high safety. That meant the cornerbacks were playing man-to-man with one defender blitzing Tebow.
But cornerback Zack Bowman, who was rotating with Tim Jennings, said he was playing a cover-2. That meant Bowman was in zone coverage, expecting safety help behind him.
But a replay showed that rookie Chris Conte was in the middle of the end zone as the single safety.
Under pressure, Tebow darted through the line of scrimmage and lunged forward, as if he were going to run as he approached the 10-yard line. On the replay, Bowman appeared to shift toward Tebow, and Tebow floated a well-placed pass to a wide-open Demaryius Thomas — alone in the back right corner of the end zone — for a touchdown.
“I knew he was trying to throw the ball,” Bowman said. “Where, I didn’t know.”
In overtime, Jennings also was on the sideline when Thomas converted a third-and-eight with a 10-yard catch against Bowman near the Bears’ sideline.
After the game, coach Lovie Smith said the plan was to play three corners.
“We were running around a lot and wanted to keep guys fresh,” he said.
“Definitely felt the altitude,” defensive tackle Amobi Okoye said.
Added defensive tackle Stephen Paea, “I felt it the whole game.”
Defensive players, though, refused to blame running back Marion Barber, who lost a fumble in overtime and didn’t run out of bounds — costing about 35 seconds on the game clock — late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s extremely frustrating to be that close,” Tillman said. “But just mistakes toward the end.
“The touchdown in the end zone, we just have to play better. Put this one on the defense. We have to be able to keep the lead. Bottom line, plain and simple.”
Added Jennings, “We have to find ways to close out the game.
“This one stings bad.”