CHICAGO, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- Safety Mike Brown returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown 16 seconds into overtime Sunday after Terrell Owens bobbled a pass by Jeff Garcia, lifting the Chicago Bears to a 37-31, come-from-behind victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The rally moved the Bears (5-1) a full game in front of Green Bay for the lead in the NFC Central. The Bears have won five in a row for the first time since 1991, when Mike Ditka was the coach. They are off to their best start since 1990.
"Terrell Owens ran a slant. He just dropped the ball and it fell into my hands," Brown said. "I was just trying to get into the end zone."
Quarterback Shane Matthews, who replaced injured starter Jim Miller, and a pair of rookies -- receiver David Terrell and running back Anthony Thomas -- were instrumental in Chicago's comeback from a 19-point, second-half deficit.
Matthews connected with Terrell, Chicago's first-round pick, on scoring passes of 13 and four yards in the fourth quarter -- the last one coming with 26 seconds remaining. That was followed by a two-point conversion run from Thomas to force the overtime.
"That was unbelievable," Bears coach Dick Jauron said. "I can't tell you how good it feels. What a way to win a game, to come back like that. To score, to have to go for two. It was unbelieveble."
Matthews replaced Miller, who left in the second quarter with a hip pointer, and completed 25 of 31 for 166 yards and three touchdowns with an interception. Matthews had been sidelined with bruised ribs.
"I'm not 100 percent, but healthy enough to play," Matthews said.
San Francisco won the coin toss in overtime, but the Bears' defense negated a disappointing performance with Brown's return courtesy of Owens' bobble.
After taking over at the 20, Garcia threw a short pass over the middle to Owens, who made the catch at the 27. But in an attempt to elude charging linebacker Brian Urlacher, Owens lost control of the ball. Racing in from his free safety position, Brown snared the ball out of the air, moved to his right and raced untouched into the end zone, setting off a frenzy at Soldier Field.
"I was open. The ball was kind of low," Owens said. "I was just trying to make a play and it popped out."
Last December against the Bears, Owens had 283 receiving yards -- the sixth highest total in NFL history -- and broke the 50-year-old record of 18 catches set by Tom Fears of the Los Angeles Rams. But Owens could only stare in disbelief as the Bears celebrated in the end zone this time after his miscue.
"He's (Owens) a great receiver, but he's arrogant," Brown said. "Probably the most arrogant player in the NFL."
It was the third touchdown in four weeks for the Bears' defense. Urlacher scored on a 90-yard fumble return in Chicago's 31-3 win at Atlanta on Oct. 7 and cornerback R.W. McQuarters returned a fumble 69 yards for a touchdown in a 20-13 victory over Arizona on Oct. 14. Last week, the Bears posted a shutout at Cincinnati.
The 49ers had built a 28-9 lead on the strength of big plays from their defense as linebacker Julian Peterson scooped up a fumble and raced 25 yards for a touchdown and safety Zack Bronson scored on a 97-yard interception return.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for the 49ers, who slipped to 4-2 and played in their third overtime game of the season.
Garcia, who threw for 402 yards against the Bears last season, completed 21 of 29 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
The two surprise teams in the NFC thus far, the Bears and 49ers were meeting at Soldier Field for the first time since the 1988 NFC championship game.
Chicago entered with the league's stingiest defense, yielding just 43 points in five games. But it was San Francisco's defense which struck first.
Defensive tackle Bryant Young anticipated the snap count and hit Miller, jarring the ball loose. Peterson, San Francisco's first-round pick in 2000, scooped the ball up and raced 26 yards into the end zone to give San Francisco a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
A Chicago native, Young was playing in his first game at Soldier Field. Peterson's touchdown was the first of his career and the first by a San Francisco defensive player this season.
While Miller struggled, Garcia was flawless in an 85-yard scoring drive for San Francisco, completing all seven of his passes for 73 yards. Running back Garrison Hearst turned a short pass into a 30-yard play to key the drive and Garcia capped it with a one-yard touchdown to tight end Justin Swift with 1:03 left in the quarter.
Miller was just five of 16 for 63 yards with an interception before departing with the hip injury.
"I got to heal up, get evaluated," said Miller, who replaced Matthews as the starter before Chicago's third game.
The Bears finally scored with 1:50 left in the half, recording a safety on a poor punt snap by Brian Jennings out of the end zone.
After the ensuing free kick, Matthews marched the Bears 55 yards in seven plays in just 62 seconds. James Allen broke off a 15-yard run to the San Francisco three before Matthews hit fullback Daimon Shelton with a three-yard touchdown with 48 seconds left in the half, pulling the Bears within 14-9.
But the Niners reclaimed the momentum. On the third play from scrimmage in the second half, Hearst caught a short pass and turned it into a 60-yard touchdown.
Matthews drove the Bears to the San Francisco 10 on Chicago's first possession of the second half. But the drive turned into a 49ers touchdown when Bronson cut in front of tight end Fred Baxter at the San Francisco three, picked off the pass and raced 97 yards the other way, opening a 28-9 lead for San Francisco with 8:18 left in the quarter.
But instead of being deflated by the turnover, the Bears responded with an eight-play, 66-yard drive which featured two key catches by Baxter and ended with Thomas racing for a 19-yard touchdown with 4:58 remaining in the third quarter. Baxter caught a 19-yard pass and also made a seven-yard reception on a fourth and one play.
"That was an important drive after their interception and I never sensed any letdown or giveup from any of them," Jauron said.
Jose Cortez kicked a 40-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter to cap a 15-play drive which lasted nearly 7 1/2 minutes, giving the Niners a 31-16 advantage.
But Matthews engineered scoring drives of 66 and 67 yards, resulting in touchdown passes of 13 and four yards to Terrell in the final 4:08.
On the second score, Terrell made a leaping catch in the right corner of the end zone, barely keeping his feet in bounds with 26 seconds left. But the Bears still needed 31-29 and needed a two-point conversion.
Coach Dick Jauron elected to go with a straight handoff to Thomas, who went up the middle and waved the ball across the end zone just as his leg hit the ground.
"We really felt that somebody had touched him down (before he crossed the plane)," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "But give them credit. For Shane Matthews to come off the bench and play as well as he did was a terrific effort. They put some drives together when they needed to, so give them credit."