Their playoff hopes are still alive - barely.
The 8-6 Bears built a 21-7 lead against the 7-7 Saints Thursday night at chilly Soldier Field, but then had to scramble back to tie the game at 24-24 and force overtime on Robbie Gould's 28-yard field goal as time expired in regulation.
The Bears won the OT coin toss, and after Devin Hester got behind safety Roman Harper and drew a 38-yard pass-interference penalty to the Saints' 15-yard line, Gould won it 27-24 with a 35-yarder with 12:19 remaining.
On a night when Bears quarterback Kyle Orton and the offense were rarely in sync, they appreciated a solid performance by their defense, which did a commendable job against the NFL's No. 1 offense.
"Our defense played outstanding," said Orton, who played one of his worst games. "We gave them most of their points by making mistakes and having miscommunications."
Orton's passer rating of 49.2 was his second worst of the season, as he completed 24 of 40 passes for 172 yards and was intercepted twice.
But the Bears' defense picked off MVP candidate Drew Brees twice and held him to 232 yards on 24-of-43 passing.
"It was a good enough effort to win, and at this point in the season, that's what we want," said defensive end Alex Brown, who had the Bears' only sack. "We showed some character, and we're starting to play better, but they still had some big plays. But we won, so I don't want to put a dark cloud over it. It's the early playoffs, and we won."
The Bears still face an uphill battle to get to the real playoffs, since they trail the 8-5 Vikings by a half game and have to finish with a better record to win the division because Minnesota has the edge in tiebreakers.
After the Saints closed to 21-17, the Bears' offense again failed to get even 1 first down, as it had on three previous occasions. On fourth-and-4, Bears punter Brad Maynard lofted a pass down the middle for Adrian Peterson, who caught the ball but appeared to drop it only after he hit the ground with 7:31 remaining. The pass was ruled incomplete, and the Bears challenged the call. But it was upheld, and the Saints took over at the Bears' 47.
Why the risky play?
"Trying to win the game," coach Lovie Smith said. "That's why you always fake a punt. It didn't work out, but that's how it goes sometimes."
The Saints moved to the Bears' 38, but on fourth-and-1, Pierre Thomas tried the right side, and with a shivering crowd roaring, he was thrown for a 5-yard loss by linebacker Nick Roach and cornerback Charles Tillman.
But two plays later, Orton was picked off by linebacker Scott Fujita, who returned to the Bears' 31-yard line. On third-and-15, Drew Brees fired a dart to Marques Colston for 21 yards. Three plays later, he connected with Colston on a 12-yard TD for a 24-21 lead with three minutes and five seconds left in the game.
But Orton, who had a terrible second half until that point, drove the Bears 69 yards to the tying field goal, connecting four times with tight end Greg Olsen, who finished with 8 catches for 45 yards.
Early in the third quarter, with the Bears leading 21-7, Thomas, the University of Illinois product, brought the visitors to within 7 points on a 42-yard TD burst through the middle of the Bears' defense with 3:44 left in the quarter. A 30-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley brought the Saints within 21-17 with 9:07 left in the game.
The Bears couldn't have gotten off to a quicker start. They needed just 12 seconds and no help from the elements to jump ahead of the Saints 7-0.
With a game-time temperature of 28 degrees and a wind chill of 18, Manning fielded the opening kickoff at his 13-yard line and had such a gaping alley to run through that he had his left index finger raised in celebration before he got to midfield.
On the Bears' first play from scrimmage after the turnover, rookie running back Matt Forte was stopped for no gain and suffered an injury to his right big toe that forced him from the game and brought Peterson in as his replacement. Forte returned early in the second quarter, but with the Bears at their own one-yard line Orton mishandled a snap from center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Jonathan Vilma recovered for the Saints, who scored two plays later to tie the game at 7-7 with 9:52 left in the half.
Forte's -1yard run gave the Bears a 14-7 lead with 7:42 left. Later in the second quarter, Orton completed 5 of 6 passes to take the ball to the 6-yard line. He dropped back again but bolted form the pocket when he couldn't find an open receiver and dove across the goalline for a 21-7 lead with 49 seconds left in the half.
The Bears have 11 days to prepare for their next test, a Monday nighter at home against the Packers, who throttled them 37-3 in Green Bay on Nov. 16.
"We took a whuppin' up there," Brown said. "We're not gonna take a whuppin' here."