October 16, 2006. Glendale, Ariz. — A little after 9 p.m. Mountain time, a night’s worth of energy and hysteria had turned to disbelief. All around University of Phoenix Stadium, this newly opened retractable roof gem in the desert, the shock proved palpable.
Glowing from the scoreboards, the night’s final result made no sense.
In the closing seconds of the third quarter, the Cardinals had led the undefeated Bears by 20 points.
In the final game book being distributed throughout the press box, the Bears’ offensive drive chart showed 14 possessions. Six turnovers. Six three-and-outs. One measly field-goal drive.
And three final kneel-downs in victory formation.
Inside ESPN‘s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth, Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser cleaned up their desk and collected their thoughts. Had they really just seen a team rally from 20 down midway through the second half to win? Without scoring an offensive touchdown?
All three broadcasters seemed more entranced by the Cardinals’ unraveling than by the Bears’ spirited rally.
“It’s impossible to believe they lost his game,” Kornheiser said aloud, his head shaking like a bobblehead.
“They live where there are snakes,” Theismann quipped. “And they’re snakebitten.”
In the visiting locker room, meanwhile, the 6-0 Bears relished their euphoria and kept an eye on the televisions overhead.
Elsewhere in the stadium’s underbelly, Cardinals coach Dennis Green marched toward his postgame news conference with steam pouring from his ears. Little did Green know he was stomping into YouTube infamy, about to provide the fitting exclamation point on the Bears’ most memorable victory of their most memorable season in the 21st century.
In a 13-win season that ultimately led the Bears to the Super Bowl, no experience was more invigorating than that Monday night in the desert.
Ten years later, the emotions still resonate.
The buzz around Arizona was undeniable. Not only were the undefeated Bears in town and not only were the Cardinals hosting a “Monday Night Football” game for the first time since 1999, but rookie quarterback Matt Leinart was preparing to make his second career start. The Bears joined the Colts as one of only two undefeated teams. And Lovie Smith‘s team wasn’t just unbeaten. It was virtually unchallenged. Four of the Bears’ first five wins had come by at least 24 points, including a 26-0 thrashing of Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field in the opener. No team in the league had scored more points (31.2 ppg). No team had allowed fewer (7.2). A week earlier, the Bears hung 40 points on the Bills in a runaway home win.
Olin Kreutz, Bears Pro Bowl center: We saw coming out of camp that we were a legitimate Super Bowl team. Obviously there were other years we felt that too. But to back that up, you have to win. You have to gain momentum. You need to have some success on the field to see who you are. So as we were blowing people away, we had this feeling building like, “Damn, man, we are really, really good.” Then we went to Arizona.
Zach Zaidman, Bears sideline reporter for WBBM-AM 780: You have to understand the roll the Bears were on. They were arguably playing their best football all-around since 1985.
Antrel Rolle, Cardinals cornerback: That night, even well before kickoff, was electrifying. … The night had this whole playoff feel to it.
Lovie Smith, Bears head coach: After five games, we had an idea of what type of team we were. So it was our ideal time to showcase to the national audience who we were, what type of team we had.
Zaidman: In the third preseason game at Soldier Field that year, Matt Leinart lit up the Bears first-team defense. At one point, it’s a flurry of 12 consecutive completions. The final score is 23-16 Cardinals. And it wasn’t that close. The Cardinals dominated. And Denny Green felt confident after that game.
Mike Kruczek, Cardinals quarterbacks coach: Denny was always an incredible football coach when it comes down to evaluating the opposing football team and understanding what our team had to do to try and win. … We all know what Denny said after the game. But what people need to know is that in the week leading up to the game, he stayed on the same message. Every day. He said it every day. The Bears aren’t who they think they are. He told our team that every day. It was his professional evaluation and that really helped instill confidence in our team.
Smith: My memories are not hazy. No. No. Not hazy at all. This is one of those games where it’s vivid. I remember every last detail of what happened and how I was feeling throughout the game. A lot of emotion.
Leinart’s entrance onto the NFL‘s big stage that Monday night was not going to come without challenge. In a 5-0 start, the Bears’ defense had allowed only 235 yards per game while producing almost twice as many takeaways (15) as scoring drives allowed (eight). In the first halves of those first five wins, the Bears hadn’t allowed a touchdown.
But the Cardinals had belief in their left-handed rookie, a Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champion at Southern California and the No. 10 overall pick in that spring’s draft. Still, no one could have expected his Monday night explosion. Seven consecutive completions to open the game. An 11-yard touchdown pass to Bryant Johnson on the Cardinals’ first drive. Another TD toss — 26 yards to Anquan Boldin — later in the quarter, plus other two field-goal drives.
Kent Somers, Cardinals beat writer for the Arizona Republic: Coming out of the draft that April, everybody here felt like the Cardinals had finally gotten lucky and landed a player they didn’t expect to fall to them. A quarterback too. On draft day, when Denny called Leinart to say “We’re taking you,” Denny told him right out, “I feel like we got a gift from heaven.” That was the feeling. … Especially here in Pac-10 country, this was the golden boy. He had the looks and the success.
Tony Kornheiser, “Monday Night Football” color analyst: I distinctly remember in our meetings on Saturday and then the meeting on Monday morning, sometime around 7 a.m., being in there at the big table. There are like 30 people, everybody involved in that broadcast sitting around our table and in on this discussion. And Jay Rothman, the producer, has the blackboard. Jay has his notes written down and he’s going sheet to sheet to sheet. I remember him saying, “We know who the Bears are. Great defense. Really good team. And they’re probably going to win this game. But what an opportunity this is for Matt Leinart.”
It dominated what we talked about. The tilt was toward the possibility that if Leinart was great the way he was in college, oh, boy. Matt Leinart. Matt Leinart. This is his explosive debut, his Broadway show, this was our, “Hi, kids. Let us introduce you to a star.”
Somers: Before the game, Leinart’s talking to one of the Cardinals staffers and makes some off-handed remark that “Hey, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore are up there in a suite.” As guests of his. And the Cardinals staffer is thinking, “God, where’s this guy’s head at? He’s worrying about movie stars up in the stands?” But that’s how cool Matt was.
Joe Theismann, “Monday Night Football” analyst (on the broadcast, after the first TD pass to Johnson): The big stage does not intimidate Matt Leinart. As a matter of fact, he relishes these moments.
Smith: When you go on the road, if you have a good defense, you start out with the feeling of, “Hey, we’re going to be OK.” Especially that defense. They were as good as any. Then Leinart starts out hot, completing a lot of balls. Before you knew it we were down and then down some more.
In the final minute of the first quarter, Leinart fired his second TD pass, a dart to Anquan Boldin over the middle, that gave the Cardinals a 14-0 lead.
Kruczek: The touchdown pass to Boldin was a new route we had put in. … I had really wanted Q to work Urlacher in the middle of the field. He was running kind of a jerk route off of Brian. I wanted him to sit down and then work away from Urlacher. Q runs it perfectly, catches the ball, spins and does his thing. That was a new twist, specifically to try and isolate Anquan on Brian. It sounds strange because Brian Urlacher was a fantastic athlete with great size and speed. But to me it just felt like it matched up.
Urlacher: Honestly, that’s one of the most vivid things in my memory from that night. I missed that damn tackle on Boldin. I think they credited me for 25 tackles in that game. But I was 25-for-26. And that was the only one I missed.
Somers: To come in against that Bears defense and play like it’s no big deal, it was as if Matt was just out there dissecting Washington State or something.
Rolle: Over time, I always felt like Matt was never comfortable to be the guy he needed to be in the NFL as he was in college. Like he had this crazy amount of pressure on him. I never saw that confident, cocky Matt Leinart, the guy we saw in college who would shred anybody he went up against. That night, though, he had those flashes.
On the game’s first snap, Bernard Berrian slipped behind Rolle on a go-route, wide open for what could have been a 62-yard touchdown pass. But Rex Grossman’s throw sailed a few feet too long, a near-miss that began an erratic night for the Bears’ 26-year-old quarterback. Grossman, making just his 14th NFL start, threw two interceptions in the first half and lost two fumbles. After halftime? Two more picks. For the night, the Bears offense collected all of nine first downs and produced 168 total yards.
Smith: Coming into that game, our offense was a big part of the story. Our offense was rolling. We expected all along for our offense to be good. Then, all of a sudden, that wasn’t our night. To put it mildly.
Grossman: Our first series of the season ended with a (49-yard) touchdown pass to Bernard (at Green Bay). And it all just kind of rolled for five straight weeks. I felt like I could do no wrong. I probably came into that game a little overconfident.
Somers: The Cardinals’ coordinator at the time, Clancy Pendergast, was really good about switching game plans from week to week. They found ways to bring pressure from a lot of different places. So it was never an easy defense to prepare for because you didn’t see a lot of the things they did very much.
Rolle: In our preparation, we were on point with every last detail. We knew their weapons. We knew pretty much how they were going to try to attack us. And we felt like we had answers. Once the game started, we played such sharp, collective team ball as an entire defense.
Smith: First things first, they were really pumped up. They certainly didn’t come out playing like a team that had won only one game. “Monday Night Football” will do that to you.
Charles Barkley (as a guest in the “Monday Night Football” booth, after Grossman’s second quarter interception): I told y’all. Arizona’s going to shock the world.
Smith: We ran the ball well all year. That was a big reason we went all the way to the Super Bowl. But that night? They shut us down. They did as much as you could possibly do defensively to win a football game.
Kreutz: We were getting handled as an offensive line. If I remember correctly, they were outnumbering us in the box. … They were really stuffing us. And we never could get our pass game going.
Grossman: Throughout my career playing quarterback, it just seemed like it was either really easy or really hard. … Murphy’s Law for me on that day. I just could not do anything. It was like a pitcher that gets yanked in the second inning. It just was not my day, and in a lot of cases not our day, but I’ll take the heat for a lot of it.
Theismann (on the broadcast after Grossman’s fourth pick, in the second half): If he was home in Chicago right now, they’d be booing louder than they did in the preseason. He has played very, very poorly tonight. He’s thrown the ball poorly and his decisions have been bad.
Grossman: For me, it was a nationally televised game that created a narrative that I never really quite got over, as far as public perception that the Bears only went to the Super Bowl because they have defense. I think that was the nail in the coffin as far as a perception-is-reality situation.
Over the first five weeks of the season, the Bears hadn’t faced a halftime deficit and had outscored opponents 90-12 in the first two quarters, evidence of a team that knew how to put its foot on the gas and not let up. So you can imagine the frustration that set in as the Cardinals pummeled them on a prime-time stage. The retreat to the locker room at halftime that night was unlike any that team had experienced.
Barkley, (in the booth, as the Cardinals settled for a field goal on their final first half possession): When you’ve got momentum and you’re playing at home, you’ve got to go for the jugular. … I’m going to make a prediction. Twenty isn’t going to be enough to win this game.
Zaidman: Lovie was furious. I would talk to the head coach at halftime live on the air every game. And in Lovie’s time up to that point, it was the first time I could feel real emotion from him, compared to all the other vanilla halftime interviews we’d ever done. You could tell he was riled up, that he was ticked off. His voice was getting higher. The emotion was real.
Smith: I have a vivid recollection of coming into halftime. I had grabbed Olin, Brian, some of our captains. I said, “Hey, I need you guys to take the team right away and our coaching staff will start meeting. Just let the guys know we’re not out of this. We’ve played about as bad as we could possibly play and we’re only down 20-0. We have a chance.” And in my mind, that one point meant something to me. I was thinking, hey, we get three touchdowns, we’re up.
Hester: I remember going in that locker room and seeing Olin Kreutz. Usually at halftime, you go in and the offensive guys get with the offensive coordinator and the defensive guys go to the defensive coordinator. There was none of that. There was Olin gathering everybody up, saying, “Listen here. Y’all round it up and come right to me. This is my time to speak up.”
Kreutz: I felt like things needed to be said. So I spoke up. I just said, “Let’s hit them in the mouth and out-physical them and we’re going to win this game.” I really felt that. But to be honest, I felt like that every football game. I felt like if you kick the other guys’ ass enough, you’re going to win the game.
Tillman: We’re down 20-0 and Olin looked at every guy in there and said, “We’re not going to lose this game. We’re all right. We’re good.” And he said it in a straightforward manner. His demeanor was very calm. Like, hey, we’re going to win this game. Let’s sit here, regroup, make our adjustments. Then let’s go back out there and kick their ass.
Hester: Right then and there, everybody bought in and said to the man next to them that we still had a chance to win. So maybe we got punched in the face in the first half, but, hey, let’s have faith and fight through this.
Smith: By the time we as coaches got there, you could look in their eyes and see it. It wasn’t like anyone was gun-shy after what happened. No. It was, we can’t wait to get back out there and change this.
Urlacher: The thought for every single guy was, “We’re going to play well the second half and beat their ass.” We knew how good we were. And with our defense, it seemed like we could always make a play when we had to.
Zaidman: At the end of halftime, as the Bears are running back on the field, several players and several staff members came right up to me like, “Man, you should have been in there.” Whatever Olin said resonated. You had a bunch of players repeating it, “We’re going to win this game. We’re going to bleeping win this game!”
In his third year as Bears coach, Smith had instilled a mentality in his defense. Get. The. Football. Then score with it, if at all possible. It was a philosophy that shaped the way the Bears practiced. And it was a mentality Smith’s defenses always turned loose in games. So amid the offense’s struggles that night in Arizona, the Bears defense knew it would have to pick up the slack.
Smith: I thought we were going to make a big run right after halftime. But for the third quarter, that wasn’t the case.
Theismann, on the broadcast, with 2 minutes left in the third quarter and the Bears trailing 23-3: You just run out of time if your defense can’t create opportunities for you. And that’s something the Bears defense has not done for their offense.
The first firework came on the final snap of the third quarter with a Mark Anderson strip-sack of Leinart and a 3-yard fumble return touchdown by safety Mike Brown.
Mark Anderson, Bears rookie defensive end: I was a fifth-round pick that year. You come into that defense and it’s Brian Urlacher. And then there’s (Lance) Briggs, Tommie Harris, Adewale (Ogunleye). I knew I was coming into an established defense and I wanted to make some kind of mark. Nobody knew who I was. … When Lovie simplified it for me and was like, “All you need to do is get upfield and get after the quarterback,” I fell in love with my role.
Urlacher: Dude wound up with like 12 sacks as a rookie. He was our guy on third down. Just go get the quarterback. He was good at that. So he had it made.
Anderson: Wale was hurt that game. I think it was a last-minute scratch for him too. … I’m thinking, “Damn, this is my first time starting and we’re getting blown out?” I put the blame on myself. Like 20-0? Are you serious? I was telling myself, “I’m out here stinking it up. I’m not making any plays. Nothing. This can’t be the case right here.”
Tillman: We all knew we needed a play. And here comes Mark Anderson. Untouched.
Anderson: I was lined up on that left side and right at the snap I remember seeing (the Cardinals) all sliding to my right, to the offense’s left. And I get off the ball thinking somebody’s going to block me. And no one did. It’s like, “OK, are they going to hand the ball off or something?” And they didn’t. Leinart was right there. I had a straight line.
Kruczek: Matt didn’t take two steps into his drop before he got hit. Whatever look the Bears gave us on defense, we had opted to change the protection and somehow it wasn’t communicated correctly. That was really the beginning of the end.
Anderson: After I hit him, the adrenaline rush was surreal. I wanted to score. I wanted to get the sack, force the fumble and score the touchdown. That was my plan. Mike (Brown) beat me to it. And if you look at the highlight, as he scores, you can see me punching toward the fans. I was talking noise and everything. I was hyped up.
Theismann (on the broadcast): Just absolutely unblocked. I have no earthly idea what (right tackle) Oliver Ross is thinking or looking at.
Anderson: That was the easiest sack I ever had. And not only was it a sack. It was a turnover. And then a touchdown. Thank you, Cardinals, for that play right there, man. Thanks to the offensive line, the coordinator, everybody.
Urlacher: Takeaways are great and all. You take it to the next level when you score. That’s what we were all about.
Tillman: The culture that Coach Smith presented us when he came here was that we were going to score on defense. Takeaway. Takeaway. Takeaway. Score. Score. Score. It’s nice to take the ball away. But we need to score when we get the takeaway. I think just hearing that mantra over and over and over again, it was beat into our brains so much that we never panicked.
Kreutz: Whatever I said at halftime, it seems like only the defense was listening. At least somebody was.
Anderson: The way we were down, those were bonus points. The offense didn’t even need to do anything. After that, we’re all thinking, let’s do it again. That started the roll, man.
Smith: Now all of a sudden, at 23-10? Man, I could see. This could happen now. It’s just two touchdowns.
Zaidman: It’s an incredible momentum shift and a great play by Mike Brown. But what people forget is that Mike Brown winds up with a season-ending Lisfranc injury later in that game. It was the last game he played that year. … And when you fast forward three months, you have to wonder how the Super Bowl turns out had he not gotten hurt.
Kreutz: Mike Brown, man. Leadership. Smarts. A tough guy with a tough presence. He knew plays before the offense ran them. Losing Mike was a big deal. … I’ll argue with anybody. If we had had Mike Brown and Tommie Harris for the Super Bowl, we would be champs.
To this day, there are many within the Bears organization who believe that night in Arizona was Urlacher’s most brilliant outing of a decorated 13-year career. Cardinals running back Edgerrin James managed only 55 yards on 36 carries and was stopped for no gain or a loss 14 times. After film review, Bears coaches credited Urlacher with 25 tackles. Still, with the Bears trailing into the fourth quarter, Urlacher’s productive night still needed a signature moment.
Smith: Brian Urlacher comes over right at that intermission (before the fourth quarter). And I grabbed Brian and I looked at him with a smile and I said, “Hey, Brian. You know it’s time now, right? What are you waiting for? We’re running out of time. If we’re going to do something, we need to do it pretty quick.” Brian and I are just casually talking. It’s not like I’m chewing him out. I was just trying to loosen him up and get him going. So I said, “You’re freaking Brian Urlacher. You need to make something happen right now.”
Urlacher: He’d have that little smile. And he’d look me right in the eye and say, “All right now. I need you to be Brian Urlacher, big guy.” I’m like, “OK.” It was crazy. None of us ever thought we were going to lose that game.
Tillman: Brian Urlacher took his game to a whole ‘nother level. My god. It was fun to sit there and witness it. It was like I was playing the game, but I’m also trying to watch him, too, because it was so ridiculous.
Smith: The leader. The voice. The guy who’s out front. Brian’s an imposing figure just looking at him. So every play, they see a 6-4, 260-pound, 6 percent body fat guy in front of them. Start there. But Brian was a guy who knew what everybody was supposed to do. You expect that guy, in big games, to come through. If we needed him to make a big hit, he did that time after time. Stripped the ball. You expected that out of a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Kreutz: Once you’re on the bench and you go over your scheme, now you’re looking up at the big screen and watching the defense while you’re resting. And I remember Brian being in on virtually every play. There he is. There he is. There he is again. Every. Single. Time. Brian was making a tackle. He was flying all over the place.
Smith: The Chicago Bears should always have a player like that.
With the Cardinals becoming increasingly conservative on offense, the Bears ganged up against the run. On a second-down run with a little more than 5 minutes left, James ran into a wall of Bears defenders and couldn’t keep Urlacher’s claws off the football.
Urlacher: I knew it was a run. Because they ran the ball every single play in the second half. They took the ball out of Leinart’s hands. The first half he shredded us. But with their lead, they took the ball out of his hands. And we just started playing an eight-man front every play. I honestly felt like I wasn’t blocked most of the time that night. On that fumble, it just seemed like the ball was right there for me. And I just pushed to rip it out.
Tillman: I saw Edgerrin James was stuffed and I’m noticing Brian just unleashing a very aggressive strip attempt. That ball comes right out and it landed right there for me. I’m like, “Merry Christmas. Thank you. See you all later.”
Smith: You’re talking takeaways now, right? For Brian to yank the ball out, he’s tearing the ball from a great player’s hands. And then, where have we heard this before? Charles Tillman involved with a takeaway? And scoring a touchdown? We’ve seen and heard that many times.
Tillman: I’m running and I see (Cardinals tight end Leonard) Pope running with me. I’m like, “Don’t get caught. Don’t get caught.” And I hit that end zone (after a 40-yard fumble return) and it’s like, “I just scored a touchdown! On Monday Night Football! We’re going to win this game!”
Urlacher: We only had two takeaways. But they were both touchdowns. … That was us. We were that good on defense that year. If we needed a pick, we’d get a pick. If we needed a touchdown, we’d score a touchdown.
Kruczek: Brian Urlacher. Great football player. But we gave him a chance. We never kept him off balance in the second half with what we did. And he took advantage of it. He did what he did best. When he was coming downhill, he was a wrecking ball.
Kreutz: I’ve said this a lot and people say I’m biased. But there’s never been a linebacker like him. There has never been a guy who is that big and that fast who could dominate an entire game like he did. I don’t know what you’d classify as the highest level of appreciation in this game, but that’s what I had for Urlacher when I was playing with him.
Smith: That game may have been as good as he’s ever played.
Urlacher: Tackles-wise, it was certainly one of my better games. But it’s hard for me to compare. … But a Monday night game? Pretty damn big.
Tillman: When Brian was dialed in, it was so cool to be a part of it. I had the absolute best view in the house of watching it up close and personal. It was beautiful.
Zaidman: When Urlacher goes into the Hall of Fame, all they need to do is stick a tape in of his performance from that night. That’s proof enough. He was everywhere. Everywhere.
In mid-October 2006, Devin Hester had barely begun inching his way toward the top of the NFL’s career return touchdowns list. He was, in Week 6, simply an eager rookie with all of 21 career regular-season punt returns to his name. The fourth of those was an 84-yard touchdown at Lambeau Field five weeks earlier. Thus, Hester had the Cardinals’ attention. And he had his own hunger for the big moment. After the Bears delivered a key third-and-12 stop with 3:17 left, Hester and the punt return unit took the field. The Bears trailed 23-17.
Hester: My only mindset was to break one. I’m saying to myself, “This is my time now. Everybody else is making plays. When are you going to make a play, Devin? Everybody else is playing ball. It’s your time, so step up.”
Zaidman: Once upon a time, the punt return was a time where if you were watching at home, it was your break to go to the fridge, go to the bathroom, go wherever and come back. Then Devin got here. And suddenly every return was must-see.
Hester: When I think back to that first game in Green Bay, that first opportunity for me playing in the NFL, to take that one back to the house was big for me. That was big for the special teams. I showed those guys what I was capable of doing. And that motivated all of us as a group to go out and break one each and every week.
Rolle: Back up. I’ll tell you the most electric play I’ve seen from him. It was in college when we were at the University of Miami. He might have been a freshman. We’re playing Florida. And Devin has a kick return where I swear to you I’ve never seen a man move that fast with a ball in his hands. It was like he was Forrest Gump out there. That’s what it reminded me of. Like everyone else was standing still and he was just slashing through. You knew right away that guy was dynamic, that he had something special.
Scott Player, Cardinals punter: We knew he was dangerous. We had seen enough film on him after five games, where you could tell even if he wasn’t scoring, he was very dangerous. We had talked about it all week. We didn’t want to try to give him a ball down the middle of the field. We were trying to go left or right and put him towards the sidelines.
Hester: I was new in the NFL, man. I didn’t think at any point that teams were going to shy away from me. I hadn’t proven myself in the league.
Rolle: I vividly remember going to our special teams coach and saying, “You can’t kick the ball to him. You can’t put it near him. Kick it out of bounds. Kick it sideways if you have to and let our defense get back out there and play. But you can’t kick this to him.”
Dave Toub, Bears special teams coordinator: In that situation, for us to call a return, it lets you know how special we knew Devin was. And as we’d come to learn, the thing about Devin was if you put him on a Sunday night game, a Monday night game, he’d rise up and deliver some huge play on national television. That was the first one.
Smith: We were moving up on that sideline to watch him. And right now, as I’m talking about it, I really do have chill bumps on my body. Because it’s vivid. I’m back in it right now. And there came the punt. And there was Devin. Man.
Toub: Before that punt, Brendon Ayanbadejo told me ‘I think I can get a flash-and-go.’ Which means you show a hold-up and then you rush. Brendon was a great player. He had a really good feel for those kinds of things. So when a guy like that says he thinks he has a chance, you let him do it. And he almost blocked it.
Player: Unfortunately on that last punt, we had a protection breakdown. I was going to go right with the ball. But the protection breakdown was coming at my right leg. So I had to change my angle and sling the ball back toward the middle of the field. Which caused the ball to carry. So one series of events led to a whole chain of events. If I had stayed on my angle going right, the punt could have been blocked.
Hester: He put a foot into it, man, and kicked it pretty deep. I was backing up to catch it and just wanted to follow my blockers.
Smith: You can’t on that stage, let a great one have a ball like that.
Kreutz: I remember Hester catching that ball in the middle of the field and nudging Ruben (Brown) and saying, “I think he’s gone.”
Player: I was bewildered. It didn’t look like our (coverage) guys were running. I know it was late in the fourth quarter. People were worn out. But every time you go out there on special teams, you have to go balls to the wall and find a way to get the guy. It was like a 50-something yard punt. I hit it good. And he even caught the ball backing up. So there was plenty of time. It was over 5 seconds before he started moving forward with the ball. … We didn’t have a guy within 10-15 yards of him. I don’t know what happened with that.
Rolle: Pfffffft. There was the ball in his hands. I was livid at this point. Because I already knew what was going to happen.
Player: If it was flag (football), I might have got him down grabbing a flag. But he was wide open by the time he got to me. I’m surprised I even got to touch him at all.
Hester: The only thing in my mind was, “Do not get caught.”
Player: It’s like trying to catch a bullet out of a gun.
Hester: That feeling there, man, was one of the best feelings in the game. Coming back from a deficit like that, I get in that end zone and it’s like, “Man, we can pull this thing off.”
Player: I remember looking up at the video board and there was this big picture of me just laughing. Not that anything was funny. Just this pure disbelief. The whole series of events was comical.
Hester: I still have the touchdown ball and a couple photos of that return. They’re at my house, in a display case.
Toub: I have a tape of all his touchdowns in my office. And every once in a while I go back and watch them. I’m just amazed. Still. That one was special.
Player: Hindsight now? Maybe it would have been better to get the punt blocked. The Bears could have recovered it there and not scored. Because their offense wasn’t doing anything all night.
Anderson: That’s the last thing I remember. Hester scoring and that was it. And we were celebrating. Like the game was over.
Kornheiser (on the broadcast, after Hester’s TD): If you’re a sports columnist now, and you’re getting ready to write, it is very hard for you not to put the words “choke” and “Arizona” in the first sentence.
Tirico (on the broadcast, at the 2-minute warning): Those comparisons are made to the ’85 Bears. Mythical teams. A win like this is a mythical type win. From down 23-3, the Bears have come back, without an offensive score and have the lead with 2 (minutes) to go.
Kruczek: That’s the thing people forget. The game wasn’t over. There’s still 2 minutes and change left and Matt (Leinart) is waiting for one more opportunity.
Smith: I’m thinking to myself, they still have time. And lo and behold, Leinart moves them right down the field.
Kruczek: It’s a brilliant 2-minute drive. Matt’s locked in. … With all things considered — this was his second start, the stress we were under — it really was an impressive drive. … And that’s all you can ask for. Considering what had taken place the previous 27 minutes, it was crazy how relaxed he was. Right down the field.
Kornheiser (on the broadcast, during the final drive): He looks like the kid in “Entourage,” Vinny Chase. He’s got that. He’s got that confident look.
Urlacher: Hell, yeah, I remember that. On that last drive, I blew a coverage on the fullback. Femi Ayanbadejo. … He (bleeping) released and I didn’t cover him. And he goes flying up the sideline for (13 yards) and a first down. Now they’re in field-goal range.
Somers: And then Neil Rackers. Yep. Neil Rackers. Here comes Rackers trotting out and I’m having that thought that, “Wow, even with everything that went wrong down the stretch, the Cardinals are still going to win this game. And Leinart’s going to be the ultimate hero after all.”
Kruczek: We eventually get it down near the 20. On the left hash mark. Rackers has a 40-yard kick from the left hash. Game’s in the bag. Simple as that. But Murphy’s Law …
Zaidman: It wasn’t even wide left. If the box score had an option for “Just a tinge to the left,” that would have been more accurate.
Kruczek: 40 yards. Left hash. You don’t get it any better than that it the NFL. Neil could have done it blindfolded.
Zaidman: But that’s what you need in those types of games. That kind of luck.
Rolle: I forgot all about that missed field goal. Damn. I don’t remember that at all. That’s crazy. Neil missed a kick? Zero recollection of that whatsoever.
The Bears moved to 6-0 that night while the Cardinals fell to 1-5. But it was so much more than that. One team had gathered needed belief for a run to the Super Bowl. The other went into a wicked tailspin. It was all neatly encapsulated within a 42-second exchange in the University of Phoenix Stadium interview room with Green scowling and responding to an innocuous question with a fiery answer that will live forever.
Reporter (in the Cardinals’ postgame news conference): Four picks against Grossman and two fumbles. What did you see about the Bears to shut them down that way?
Green: Nah. I mean. We just … Let’s … The Bears are what we thought they were. They’re what we thought they were. We played them in preseason. Who the hell takes the third game of the preseason like it’s (expletive)? (Expletive)!
We played them in the third game. Everybody played three quarters. The Bears are who we thought they were. And that’s why we took the damn field!
Now if you want to crown them, then crown their ass! But they are who we thought they were! And we let ’em off the hook!
Somers: We were on a very tight deadline that night. So I’m up in the press box writing away and I never made it down to Denny’s postgame press conference. Next thing I know, our columnist Paola Boivin comes back up and we’re comparing notes really quickly. She looks at me and says, “Well, Denny kind of went off.” Then I see the replay and I’m thinking, “Kind of? Kind of?”
Urlacher: You see that and you’re thinking to yourself, “Whoa. This dude is pissed.”
Zaidman: It had gotten quiet in the Bears locker room. There’s a bunch of Bears players just staring up at the live feed (of the news conference) and listening. And Denny pounds the lectern and delivers his rant and storms off. And I’ll never forget this hush that was all across the Bears locker room. And then it just erupted. Somebody yells, “Go, Bears!” and the celebration gets even more raucous than it already was.
Kreutz: Watching that in the locker room, that was funny to us. We were cheering him on, to say the least. … It made that win all that much better. You always love to see the frustration in someone losing because you beat them in their house.
Grossman: I don’t know why he was taking it out on, or even talking about, the Bears. They lost the game. They played amazing — and lost. I didn’t take it personally because I thought we were going to be crowned. And we were crowned NFC champions. I do have an NFC champion ring that I can crown myself with.
Kornheiser: I know that everybody thinks Denny Green melted down. In that moment, I never thought that at all. Denny was 100 percent right. He devised a game plan to beat the Bears. And they were going to beat the Bears. And when he said, “If you want to crown their asses, then crown their ass,” he was saying “Look, they’re not invincible. We were there with them for 58 minutes.” So when everybody was fixated on the notion that Denny went ballistic, I thought he was completely within the bounds of what happened.
Kruczek: Denny had been so spot-on with his vision for the game. He had always been a players’ coach, very supportive of his players and staff. And he knew going in the chance we had. I think that had an affect on him more than most losses. Coaches take all losses the same most of the time. This one was different.
Rolle: They say you’re supposed to take a day or two to stomach a loss and then move on to the next game. But that one took awhile. It really did. That one took awhile.
Player: I truly believe that if we win that game, everybody’s career takes a whole different spin. That loss, in my opinion, was just devastating. It sucked the life out of him as a coach. And the morale of our team was just gone after that.
Urlacher: If we didn’t already know it, we proved to ourselves that night that we could win in different ways. We won a damn game 24-23 without scoring an offensive touchdown. That showed us that whatever we needed to do to win a game, we could do.
Smith: As classic and exciting a game as you’ll ever be a part of. And you look at the players who made the plays. Your big players, in the big games, are supposed to really rise to the occasion on that national stage. And it’s Brian Urlacher. Mike Brown. Charles Tillman. Devin Hester. … Some things are just meant to be.
Urlacher: I’ll never forget all the Bears fans that were there that night. It was incredible. And so many of them didn’t leave. But the funny part is that I had rented a box there that night. I had a lot of friends and other people coming to that game. And I had a bunch of buddies who were in from Vegas. And come to find out later, they all left in the middle of the third quarter and went back to Vegas. They got back and couldn’t figure out what happened. Screw them. Leaving the game early.
Kreutz: For me, that night was special in that it showed a team that was going to fight together all the way until the end. We were in a position deep into that game where we could have said, “Oh, well. It’s Arizona’s night. It’s Monday night. We’ll take this loss and leave at 5-1.” But that team wasn’t going to accept that. To a man, 5-1 wasn’t going to be good enough.
Smith: That flight home was all adrenaline. Everybody realized what had happened. There have been a lot of great Monday night games. But man, just watching a game and saying, “How did that happen?” Man, this is one you remember.
Hester: Down 20 points at halftime, man. So were we going to lay down and make it a priority to come out of that game injury-free? Or would we continue to fight and say, hey, we’re not laying down for nobody. That’s what we did.
Zaidman: It’s without question the greatest game I’ve ever seen in person. You win a game like this, you believe you can do anything. Who comes back down 20-0 at halftime without any offense? You needed amazing play after amazing play after amazing play.
Smith: We were pumped up after the game and I said it. Hey, we’re a team of destiny. And you want to stop yourself right away. But that’s how you feel. When things like that happen, you feel like it’s a team of destiny.
Tillman: Honestly, that’s the best football memory I have from my entire career, on the field. It’s that game right there. Because when you talk about team and playing for the man next to you, that’s what that game represents. … You take the adrenaline and us believing and put that all together and it’s scary because you saw what 53 guys can do when they really focus and put their minds to it. It was beautiful. It was so beautiful.
Smith: I can still feel it. I can. That’s that drug of football that you can never replace. There’s no medicine to cure those feelings you have. That’s why we stay in the game, because of moments like that, wins like that.
A Bears special section cover from the Oct. 17, 2006 Chicago Tribune.