NEW ORLEANS -- With their tough-guy quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, this was a game that the Chicago Bears won on toughness in the final seconds yesterday at the Superdome.
The undefeated New Orleans Saints, whose defense is probably the NFL's most intimidating, had won the first 58 minutes by beating up on Harbaugh and catching a number of sore-armed quarterback Bobby Hebert's best passes.
They even kicked a 60-yard field goal, Morten Andersen's longest.
Then, the Saints shanked a punt. It carried only 12 yards to midfield, whereupon Harbaugh, in the last 1:54, turned the game around.
He had completed two passes to that point. Aching from dozens of hits and three sacks but suddenly unstoppable, Harbaugh completed his next three -- the Bears' last three passes of the game -- to win it, 20-17.
The deciding pass, giving the Bears their first lead of the afternoon with 59 seconds to play, went to wide receiver Tom Waddle on a 12-yard crossing play.
And so the Saints' winning streak is history. Their 7-1 record is still good, however, for a big lead in the NFC West, and it remains better than Chicago's 6-2.
The winning drive came after the Bears' William Perry made perhaps the defensive play of the season with 2:01 remaining.
On the down before Tommy Barnhardt's shanked punt, Perry tackled tailback Dalton Hilliard for a 1-yard loss at the Saints' 41, leaving them no alternative but to punt.
Perry shook off a cutoff block and hurdled the blocker to tackle Hilliard.
Perry does not speak to reporters, but coach Mike Ditka served as a Bears spokesman.
"It was an ugly, wonderful game," Ditka said. "They took our passing game completely away [for 58 minutes]. Harbaugh was fighting for his life out there. That [was] a war zone. The NFL is bad stuff."
L "[The Saints] got a half-step jump on our tackles," he said.
"I was throwing off-balance on every play except [when sacked]. When I finally got a chance to throw on balance, there was an open receiver."
That was Wendell Davis, the wide receiver Harbaugh called on to start the winning 52-yard drive. On a play that gained 27 yards -- at a time when the Bears had totaled only 16 yards passing in three quarters plus -- Davis cut through the Saints' zone defense on a seam route and caught Harbaugh's pass.
Then Harbaugh passed for a first down to tailback Neal Anderson and for the touchdown to Waddle, who crossed between New Orleans' front and rear zones.
If you had not seen the first 58 minutes, you would have sworn that the Bears were the best passing team in the league.
It was a remarkable performance, considering the way the Saints had been tossing Harbaugh's 6-foot-3, 220-pound person about, bloodying him early on and applying matching bruises to the sides of his face.
Even so, he probably could not have prevailed if the Saints had not adjusted their defense slightly near the end. It was not exactly a prevent defense in the last two minutes, but they did alter their attacking alignment.
A 3-4 defensive team, the Saints for 58 minutes had been consistently using five rushers -- all three down linemen and both outside linebackers, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, the Pro Bowl players who did most of the damage to Harbaugh.
Then, turning conservative, as many NFL defensive teams do in the final minutes, the Saints rushed only the linemen and one linebacker.
They put their other personnel in what became a seven-man zone defense, and Harbaugh, for a change, could see some daylight.
Saints coach Jim Mora said the end of his team's undefeated season had no particular significance.
"You win one, it's one win. You lose one, it's one loss," he said. "We've won a lot of games this year as a team. Today, we lost one as a team."
Longest NFL field goals
63: Tom Dempsey, New Orleans vs. Detroit, Nov. 8, 1970.
L 60: Morten Andersen, New Orleans vs. Chicago, Oct. 27, 1991.
60: Steve Cox, Cleveland vs. Cincinnati, Oct. 21, 1984.
59: Pete Stoyanovich, Miami at N.Y. Jets, Nov. 12, 1989.
59: Tony Franklin, Philadelphia vs. Dallas, Nov. 12, 1979.