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ATLANTA - The right team won.
It just happened the wrong way.
As unlikely an ending as occurred down here Sunday afternoon, making a mockery of nearly 60 minutes in only 17 seconds, not a single Bears player or coach wanted credit for almost beating the Falcons.
And good for them, because they didn't deserve it.
"We didn't play well. It's very disappointing,'' said a terse Brian Urlacher, following a bitter 22-20 defeat. "It's a tough loss, but all losses are tough.''
The Falcons (4-2) gift-wrapped the game for the Bears (3-3) by continually kicking field goals and failing to capitalize on long drives, and a missed chip shot by eventual hero Jason Elam (5 field goals) gave the Bears the opportunity to win it.
Kyle Orton's brilliant drive down the field for the go-ahead score appeared to steal the game, and when he took the third-down snap with only 17 ticks to play, hitting Rashied Davis for the TD, all that was left to wonder was whether the Bears at 4-2 would begin to crow about the Super Bowl again.
But a squib kick and one spectacular throw by rookie QB Matt Ryan gave Elam a chance to beat the Bears with a 48-yard field goal as time expired.
It was a throw you wouldn't expect from a kid in his sixth NFL game, especially against a defense that wants to be known as one of the NFL's elite.
"I wish I had more words,'' said incredulous head coach Lovie Smith, "to really show you how bad it is.''
Wins like that, had the Bears held on, have a way of miraculously propelling teams to great heights, but a victory may have only masked the day's deficiencies.
"There were some things today we weren't able to do,'' Smith admitted. "We were not able to start fast and finish strong.''
No, they may have stepped off the plane thinking they could pass, and gotten off the bus intending to run, but by the time they made their way onto the Georgia Dome field, they were, above all else, predictable.
For more than 34 minutes, while Atlanta was taking a 12-3 lead and piling up a huge advantage in yards (254-109) and time of possession (23:20 to 10:46), the Bears ran on obvious running downs and passed on obvious passing downs.
They threw their usual complement of dinks and dunks, and the 23rd-ranked Falcons defense had little trouble sniffing out the Bears' game plan.
Until an innocuous third-and-3 from the Bears' 25 with a little more than 9 minutes left in the third quarter.
After Matt Forte had been stopped for no gain on the previous play, the Bears lined up in pass formation and gave it again to Forte, who surprised the Falcons and scampered 20 yards right up the middle for a first down.
The Bears marched down the field, with Orton twice throwing on first down for sizable gains, and the Bears finally had the Atlanta defense on its heels, leading to a 14-play, 82-yard TD drive that pulled them to within 12-10.
"We stuck to the game plan,'' said offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "We just executed better in the second half.''
Well, it certainly looked different, and with the Falcons off balance, the Bears eventually caught Atlanta and took the lead, erasing the Falcons' huge advantage in time of possession and total yards.
"They definitely changed their manner of doing things,'' said Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking. "Give them credit. They mixed it up in the second half.''
By the second half, it shouldn't have mattered, but the Falcons kicked field goals and allowed the Bears to hang around.
The defense did its part in shutting down the Falcons' exceptional running game, but looked awful against the pass and at times awfully old, though a plethora of injuries in the defensive backfield didn't help.
"Did we sacrifice defending the pass to stop the run? Possibly,'' Urlacher said. "I have to see the film, but I know we didn't execute.''
So the Bears are just where a .500 team ought to be after six games, and there's no shame in that, especially in the very winnable NFC North, with the Vikings (3-3) coming to Chicago.
But the defeat will linger, and lost in the shadows will be another very solid performance by Orton, who is moving forward each week, even if sometimes the play calls seem like they're moving backward.
The quarterback took no solace in any of it.
"We didn't start fast enough, especially as an offense,'' Orton said, "and we didn't finish as a team.''
A half-hour after the game was over, the blank look on Orton's face said it all.
He sat in front of his locker, staring into the distance, swigging a bottle of water, shaking his head.
With a great drive, he had given his team the lead. The Bears were kicking off with only 11 seconds remaining. There was no way to lose that game.
He couldn't make it make sense, no matter how many times he replayed it, no matter how many ways he figured it.
Giving up, he fired the bottle into his locker and walked to the shower.
Yeah, this one will linger.
Next Sunday can't come fast enough.