Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
In a previous edition of TheSportsNotebook’s tribute to which city had the best year in sports, we paid homage to Chicago in 1993. It’s the Windy City that again gets the nod for 2005, but with a different cast of characters. The White Sox, a bit player in ’93 as a division winner, are the star of the ’05 performance as they won their first World Series since 1917 and eradicated the “Black Sox Curse”, the eight players who were thrown out of baseball after fixing the 1919 World Series for gamblers. And while 1993’s year was carried by Michael Jordan’s Bulls, who won a championship and Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame football team, who deserved won, it’s a different pro and college team that steps up in ’05. The Illinois basketball team came within a basket of an undefeated regular season and within one win of a national title. And the Chicago Bears played a sound supporting role in winning the NFC North. So while the only fans in Chicago who can truly embrace all of this are South Siders (the good people of the North were still suffering with the Cubs), it was a great year to be in Chitown and TheSportsNotebook looks back on the year that was 2005…
Illinois was coming off a strong basketball season in 2004, having finished second to Wisconsin in the Big Ten race and then making the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Illini were poised for more right from the outset of 2005. Bruce Weber’s team was backcourt-oriented, with a dynamic trio of Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams. The conference MVP award would ultimately go to Brown while Williams is still enjoying an excellent pro career, but Head was a very big part of the offense, as we’ll soon see. Roger Powell was a gritty forward and James Augustine was at center. Illinois opened the season ranked fifth in the nation and were favorites to win the Big Ten. They validated that on December 1 when they beat top-ranked Wake Forest 91-73 and moved to the top of the polls. Subsequent non-conference wins included Arkansas, Georgetown, Oregon and the traditional neutral-site rivalry game with Missouri. On New Year’s Eve, Weber’s team put one more impressive non-conference scalp on its resume, beating #22 Cincinnati 67-45.
The Big Ten season started just as impressively with a 19-point home win over Ohio State. Conference play included narrow escapes, like a 73-68 overtime survival at home against Iowa, and it included impressive road triumphs, like beating Wisconsin by ten and Michigan State by thirteen. Illinois ran away with the conference championship and entered the season finale at Ohio State with a perfect record and had fans dreaming of the idea of matching the archrival Indiana’s achievement back in 1976, the last team to run the table and win the NCAA title. If nothing else, they could match UNLV’s 1991 team and have an unbeaten year, even if the ’91 Rebs lost in the Final Four. But Ohio State played the finale like a team on a mission. In fact, they were. The Buckeyes at 19-12 coming into the game were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to recruiting violations and they were openly treating this chance to spoil Illinois’ perfect run as their postseason. The Illini still led 64-62 on the final possession when Ohio State went for the win and hit a trey in the closing seconds to steal a 65-64 win. The chance at history might have been lost, but Illinois showed its resilience in winning the conference tournament, including an 11-point win over Wisconsin that closed a three-game sweep of the previous year’s champs.
Illinois was the #1 seed in the Midwest and the travel schedule was friendly. A commonly noted story at the time was that the Illini could win a national championship without ever getting on a plane. The first two rounds would be in Indianapolis, the regionals would be at a home-neutral environment in Chicago and the Final Four was in St. Louis. Regardless of where Weber’s team played the first two games, they weren’t going to lose, as easy wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Nevada sent them on to Chicago to play for their first Final Four since 1989.
The Big Ten was vindicating itself quite well, making Illinois’ near-perfect season look even more impressive. While Iowa and Minnesota lost in the first round and Ohio State had to be home, both Wisconsin and Michigan State pushed through to the regionals and while those two teams were not favorites, seeded sixth and fifth respectively, the league had a chance for three Final Four teams.
Illinois got a bracket break for the Sweet 16 in drawing #12 seed UW-Milwaukee. The Panthers had beaten Boston College and Alabama and were just happy to be there—they are also where this writer got his degree from and my lack of interest in the basketball team is mostly mirrored by the rest of the student body and the city in general. Meaning that even though Milwaukee people could have easily traveled to the game and created a counterweight to the Illinois fans, UWM didn’t have the fan base to make it happen, and didn’t have the personnel in either case. Brown and Williams each scored 21 points and the team shot 48 percent, more than enough to offset a big Panther edge on the glass and Illinois won 77-63.
The regional final was against Arizona, who’d survived a thrilling 79-78 game over Oklahoma State. With Illinois having both the better team and the de facto homecourt, there wasn’t a lot expected of this game. In proved to be perhaps the most memorable regional final of a weekend that was The Greatest Eight Ever. Illinois trailed by 15 points with four minutes to go. But Arizona began turning the ball over and Illinois, who would try an astonishing 35 three-point shots in this game started connecting. Williams and Head combined to shoot 10-for-21 from behind the arc. Even though Illinois allowed their opponent to hit 52 percent from the floor and to win the rebounding battle, the three-pointers were the equalizer and they rallied and forced overtime. With some of us expecting Illinois to cruise in overtime, Arizona recovered itself, but now the Illini wouldn’t be denied. They held Salim Stoudamire, a hero of the Okie State win, to 1-for-7 from behind the arc and Arizona couldn’t win scoring by twos. The final was 90-89 and Illinois had given their fans a win that should be considered the favorite in the Greatest NCAA Comeback Ever, and has to be in any discussion of Greatest NCAA Tournament Game Ever Played.
Michigan State pushed through the South Regional and made the Final Four, upending favorites Duke and Kentucky. Wisconsin nearly made it through the East, reaching the final and then giving North Carolina all it could handle. For Illinois, more than conference pride was lost when the Badgers were beaten—UNC was seen as the one team who could beat the Illini. Indeed, North Carolina and Illinois were considered head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country and were on opposite sides of the bracket to create a possible Monday Night showdown.
Bracketologists got their wish. Illinois drew Louisville and Rick Pitino and played its best game of the tournament in Saturday’s early semifinal. With news rippling through the stands that Pope John Paul II had passed away in Rome that day—I can still vividly remember watching the pilgrims praying for the pontiff, looking out the window at the ethnic Polish parish I lived across the street from in Pittsburgh at the time and almost feeling a little guilty about wanting to go watch the Final Four. Then I remembered how much the late pope had loved sports in his native Poland and his optimistic outlook on both life and death. So I headed down to the Irish Catholic club that was having a get-together for the games.
I also needed Louisville to win the national championship and win my bracket pool for the first time ever, but that was one area no miracle was forthcoming. Head bagged six three-pointers, Powell scored 20 and with 11 rebounds from James Augustine, Illinois enjoyed a glass advantage that was as decisive as it was rare. A 31-28 lead at halftime turned into a decisive 72-57 win.
North Carolina played a similar game—tight first half, followed by a strong second half and gave the nation the championship game it wanted. It took Illinois into the second half to get into the flow though, as UNC built up a 40-27 halftime lead. The Illini had no answer for Sean May, the burly interior presence who had 26 points and 10 rebounds, but Powell fought hard and grabbed 14 boards of his own, enabling Illinois to get a surprising 37-34 rebounding edge. But when you live by the three, you die by it. While Head hit five more treys and the team hit 12, it was done efficiently. The backcourt trio was 10-for-34 from behind the arc, the team overall was 12-for-40 and though Illinois eventually pulled even, UNC survived 75-70.
There wasn’t any reason to think that Illinois’ near-miss had just set the stage for a fun run through the baseball and NFL seasons in Chicago. While the Bears had been terrible in recent years—a 2001 NFC North title and quick playoff exit was the only bright spot over the previous nine seasons that had otherwise seen sub-.500 campaigns. The White Sox weren’t that bad—they’d been consistently at .500 or better since their last division crown in 2000, but they’d never won 90. Chicago had to live with the fact that it was Green Bay who’d owned the football division for three straight years while Minnesota had done the same in baseball.
But the White Sox moved aggressively in the offseason under the leadership of general manager Kenny Williams and second-year skipper Ozzie Guillen. They signed power-hitting rightfielder Jermaine Dye on the free agent market, added catcher A.J. Pierzynski and second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, all three of which would be crucial. And in a bold trade designed to meet Guillen’s desire for a faster team, Williams shipped power-hitting outfielder Carlos Lee to Milwaukee for a package of players whose biggest prize would be centerfielder Scott Podsednik, a solid leadoff hitter and base-stealer. The new additions joined a lineup that was headlined by first baseman Paul Konerko, who would hit 40 home runs and deliver 100 RBIS in 3005. Joe Crede at third base hit 22 home runs and designated hitter Carl Everett popped for 25. Add to that the 31 bombs that Dye would add and the on-base ability of Podsednik and Iguchi, and the White Sox had a nice everyday lineup.
The starting pitching was even better, as four starters—Mark Buerhle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras all made 30-plus starts, all logged over 200 IP and all posted ERAs in the 3s. The bullpen was held down for most of the season by Dustin Hermanson, another new signee, who had 34 saves, but down the stretch Guillen handed the ball to young Bobby Jenks, a fireballer who got six saves in the waning weeks of the season and was in the closer’s role by the playoffs.
The 2005 Chicago White Sox were never seriously challenged in the AL Central. An early eight-game winning streak that ended on May 8 pushed their record to 24-7 and gave them an early 4 ½ game lead, a lead that more or less stayed stable into mid-June. And that point the White Sox ripped off another eight-game streak that jacked the record to 50-22 and the lead over ten games. It hit a high of 14.5 games. September is remembered for the fact that Cleveland made a stunning charge at the White Sox, taking the lead from 9 ½ games to a game and a half in the span of sixteen days. But the White Sox always had at least the wild-card berth in hand and the quickly pulled back ahead of Cleveland clinched the division prior to a final weekend showdown with the Tribe. Although for good measure they swept the Indians, knocked them out of the wild-card and ensured both the Yankees and Red Sox would make it after the two rivals tied for first in the AL East. The networks undoubtedly thanked Guillen’s crew, even if Middle America fans did not.
The 99 wins posted by the White Sox were the best in the American League, and they drew Boston in the first-round after a tiebreaker gave the Red Sox lower seeding than the Yanks. Boston had won a historic World Series the year before but the team that crawled into October was a shadow of its championship self. Curt Schilling was beat up as he never fully recovered from offseason ankle surgery and in either case, he’d pitched the last game of the regular season to get his team in. Pedro Martinez was gone via free agency and closer Keith Foulke had been lost for the year back in June. The Red Sox rotation was spotty—all starters’ ERAs were in the 4s, and the bullpen a serious problem. What they could still do though was hit, as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez combined for 92 home runs and eight of the nine regulars had on-base percentages in excess of .350.
As the South Side got ready for baseball, there was still no reason to expect much from the Bears. The football team that united the city’s warring baseball clans had first lost starting quarterback Rex Grossman to a broken ankle in the preseason and had to give the job to rookie Kyle Orton. Then they lost a defensive battle in Washington to start the season, managing only 41 yards on the ground. It turned out the Redskins were like the Bears—on their way to a revival that would get them to the second round of the NFC playoffs—but at the time it looked like an ugly loss to a bad team. Any optimism a 38-6 thrashing of Detroit brought was given back in a 24-7 loss to Cincinnati. The Bears went into an early bye week at 1-2 as the White Sox began postseason play.
When the American League Division Series started late on a Tuesday afternoon, this Red Sox fan writer would be dismayed to be driving home from work and listening to the White Sox bats, rather than Boston’s, be the ones that opened up with a power display. The home half of the first started out with Podsednik and Dye each getting hit by a pitch, with a bunt and steal setting up an RBI chance for Konerko who pushed across the game’s first run with a groundout. Then Everett and Rowand singled to add another run and Pierzynski broke the game open before I could get in front of a TV set, with a three-run jack to make it 5-zip. It was enough for Contreras, who emerged as the #1 starter, but Chicago kept coming. Pierzynski homered again, as did Konerko, Juan Uribe and even the normally powerless Podsednik—the latter being a sign of things to come. The game ended 14-2.
Wednesday night’s Game 2 got prime-time coverage thanks to the Yankees-Angels series being on the west coast (Even the AL’s best team against the defending champs wouldn’t displace New York from Fox’s prime slot if they could help it). Johnny Damon, the Red Sox leadoff hitter, got leadoff hits to start the first and third and each inning resulted in two runs. David Wells, in the first of a two-year stint in Boston was pitching well and into the fifth held the 4-0 lead on Buerhle. Chicago got two runs back, and with a man aboard a room service double play grounder was hit at Boston second baseman Tony Graffanino. It went through his legs, causing my heart to sink, fearing doom. The premonition was right. With two outs, Iguchi launched a three-run shot to left. Writing from the Boston perspective, the series all but ended right here. Chicago had the better team and would have been the favorite anyway, but the gifting of a free two outs at a huge point underscored Red Sox vulnerability. The ability to not only take advantage, but to do so in the most dramatic and damaging fashion possible underscored White Sox strength. The 5-4 score stood up.
Friday’s Game 3 was in Boston and back in the late afternoon slot. It was another good game. An early 2-0 Chicago lead was wiped out by consecutive home runs from Manny and Ortiz. Konerko answered back with a two-run blast over the Green Monster. Manny did the same to cut the lead back to 4-3. In the sixth inning, the Red Sox loaded the bases with none out. Another veteran acquisition came out of the bullpen in Orlando Hernandez, a mainstay of the Yankee rotations that won World Series’ in the late 1990s and who had pitched a clinching ALCS game right here at Fenway in ’99. “El Duque”, as he was called, delivered a stunning performance, shutting down three straight hitters without allowing the tying run. A late insurance run by the White Sox clinched the 5-3 win and the Division Series sweep.
THE ANGELS AWAIT
The Angels had beaten the Yankees in an exciting five-game series that ended on Monday, October 10. The Halos had played Game 4 out east on Sunday due to a rain delay and they arrived in the Windy City for Tuesday’s ALCS opener completely exhausted. But the exhaustion did not apply to starting pitcher Paul Byrd, who gave six solid innings, nor to relievers Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez who locked down the last nine outs in a 3-2 win that surprised the entire country. Los Angeles had one of the game’s best managers in Mike Scoscia and while their regular lineup was perhaps overly dependent on rightfielder Vlad Guerrero, they also had a rotation whose starters all had ERAs in the 3s. And they had spunk—even running on fumes, even with ace Bartolo Colon out after a Division Series injury, they’d taken Game 1 and put the White Sox on notice.
Game 2 was a pitcher’s duel, as Buehrle went the distance, but the score was tied 1-1 in the ninth. With two outs and two strikes on Pierzynski, the catcher struck out. The ball hit the ground, but no signal was made by umpire Doug Eddings. Pierzynski made a couple steps to the dugout and the Angels walked off the field. Suddenly the catcher ran for first base realizing he hadn’t been tagged. The umpires conferred. To the fury of Scoscia, who pointed out that no clear call had been made and that the hitter himself had started walking off, first base was given to Pierzynski. A pinch-runner stole second and Crede drove him in with a base hit to left. The series would go west tied at a game apiece.
Just as we all thought we knew the White Sox would win Game 1, we also knew that now this series was going to get really interesting. Yeah,we knew that. The next two nights saw Konerko hit a three-run bomb in the first inning. And Garland on Friday night, then Garcia on Saturday night, matched Buerhle’s complete game with one of their own. The White Sox won those games 5-2 and 8-2 and were within a game of the pennant.
Sunday, October 16 dawned as a big day in Windy City sports. Before the White Sox would play for their first World Series trip since 1959, the Bears had a big home game against Minnesota. Chicago had come out of the bye week and promptly lost to a bad Cleveland team 20-10. With a record of 1-3, it wasn’t too much to say the season was on the line. For as much as the offense was struggling, the defense was capable of playing at a very high level. Five starters on this unit would make the Pro Bowl, from defensive tackle Tommie Harris to linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs to strong safety Mike Brown to ballhawking corner Nathan Varsher. And that doesn’t include defensive end Adewale Ogunleye who registered ten sacks. This defense, combined with a running game led by Thomas Jones, should at least be able to compete.
Head coach Lovie Smith, like Guillen, was in his second year and his team started coming together on this Sunday afternoon. After giving up a second quarter field goal, the defense locked down and explosive Viking quarterback Dante Culpepper completed only 26-of-48 passes and those completions only got 237 yards, while the running game was non-existent. Orton flipped consecutive short touchdown passes to tight end Desmond Clark to get control of the game and a pair of rushing TDs from Jones put the finishing touches on a 28-3 rout. Chicago could breathe a sigh of relief and watch its baseball team in prime-time.
Contreras had the ball and since he’d “only” gone 8.1 IP in the series opener he really had to answer for himself, since his teammates were tossing complete games. He indeed matched their feat, though the Angels had a 3-2 lead after five innings. Crede homered in the top of seventh to tie the game. One inning later after two were out, Rowand drew a walk and an error on the next hitter kept the inning alive. Crede came through again, driving in the lead run. Konerko doubled in a run in the ninth as the White Sox took out some insurance. Contreras wrapped up the staff’s fourth straight complete game—and in this day and age you have to wonder if that will ever happen again, especially considering they were all in succession, and therefore by four different pitchers. The final was 6-3. Konerko was ALCS MVP and the White Sox were going to the World Series.
HOUSTON HAS A PROBLEM
There were six days between the end of the ALCS and the World Series. The best team in the National League had been the St. Louis Cardinals and the rivalry this matchup would have engendered could have made great theatre and an ironic subplot to the whole storyline that started with Illinois basketball going to the Final Four in St. Loo—even if said storyline was something that probably existed exclusively with me. But the Houston Astros had something to say about that. Though their 89 wins were pedestrian by playoff standards, they had a battle-tested top three in the rotation, with 20-game winner Roy Oswalt, along with Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens, both vital to the Yankee championship years that had closed the previous decade. In the bullpen as Brad Lidge, with 42 saves and a 2.29 ERA. The offense was led by Lance Berkman, with a .411 on-base percentage/.524 slugging percentage, and a trio of Craig Biggio, Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg that combined to hit 88 home runs.
Contreras again took the ball for a Game 1, and after facing no-names like Matt Clement and Byrd in previous series openers, Clemens was a marked contrast. But the Houston veteran faltered with a bad hamstring, leaving after two innings with Chicago having already posted three runs for the home crowd. Berkman tied the game with a two-round double in the third, but Crede homered to give Chicago a lead it would not relinquish, though it required some heroics from setup man Neal Cotts. Coming on with runners on first and third and one out, and the score still 4-3, Cotts blew away three consecutive hitters with strikeouts and preserved the lead in a game that would ultimately end 5-3.
On Sunday, the Bears again set a good tone for the day with a defensive-oriented 10-6 win over Baltimore, marking two straight games they hadn’t allowed a touchdown. The baseball game would see almost as much scoring, as Pettite faced Buehrle. The tide looked to be going Houston’s direction when Berkman broke a 2-2 tie with a two-out, two-run double in the top of the fifth, Pettite got six more outs and handed the 4-2 lead to the bullpen. In the seventh, the bases were loaded with two outs and Konerko came up with arguably the biggest at-bat of the championship drive, hitting a grand slam to make it 6-4. I say “arguably” because it still wasn’t enough. With two outs in the top of the ninth, runners on second and third, and no-name infielder Jose Vizcaino at the plate, the White Sox surrendered the game-tying single. In the ninth, Podsednik came up, the ideal hitter to start a rally. No one expected him to also finish it. He hit a fly ball that just cleared the right field fence and TV cameras caught the complete shock of on-deck hitter Rowand as he greeted the conquering hero at home plate. Chicago was up two games to none and heading to Texas for the middle three games.
Houston’s hope rested in Oswalt, who’d completely dominated St. Louis in the NLCS clinching win and it looked good for the home team as they peppered Garland with six hits that produced three runs in the first three innings. A Lane home run in the fourth extended the lead to 4-0. But this White Sox team couldn’t be held down anymore. Crede led off the fifth with a home run. At this point, I have to interrupt the narrative to point out that even though Crede did not win MVP of the ALCS or in the World Series—and both of those exclusions were justified—if you look at the postseason as a whole, it’s very hard to find another player who had his fingerprints on more seminal moments than the third baseman. Maybe it’s time that MLB follow the lead of hockey and let its individual MVP award be defined by the entire postseason.
Four of the next five hitters singled and cut the lead to 4-3. Oswalt got Konerko for the second out, but Pierzynski ripped a two-run double to center to give Chicago the lead. Houston would tie it in the eight and then miss reasonable scoring chances in each of the next three frames as the game went late into the night and into the wee hours. Finally in the 14th, Chicago’s Geoff Blum hit a home run. The White Sox added an insurance run and still had to call on Buerhle to get the game’s final out after Houston put two men aboard.
Wednesday night was the baseball game the South Side had waited a lifetime for, but Houston, to their credit did not go quietly. Brandon Backe, the weak link of the postseason rotation was brilliant and threw seven shutout innings. But Garcia matched him with zeroes. In the eighth, Willie Harris led off with a single and Podsednik bunted him over. A ground ball out by Everett moved him to third. Dye, who would have a .526 on-base percentage for the Series to with a .688 slugging, gave the final argument for him to be Series MVP with a base hit up the middle. It clinched the individual honor for Dye and while the Astros got two shots in the ninth to score the tying run from second, Jenks closed it out. A World Series that produced excitement in every game individually, was anticlimactic as a whole. This Chicago team simply knew how to win and they concluded the postseason with an 11-1 record. The long-awaited Series title was one that left no doubt who the best team was.
BEARING UP NICELY
The Bears still had plenty to prove, even after crawling back to .500 at 3-3 with the Baltimore win. They battled to an overtime win at Detroit, nipped New Orleans by a field goal in the Bayou and then came home to beat San Francisco 17-9. The wins weren’t dazzling by any stretch, but Chicago was now 6-3 and had two future playoff teams from the NFC South up next, in Carolina at home and Tampa Bay on the road. The Bears won both, with the defense, well on its way to a season-ending #1 ranking in the NFL, leading the way to wins of 13-3 and 13-10.
December 4 marked an opportunity for the changing of the guard. Green Bay had effectively fallen apart. 2005 would be the worst year of Brett Favre’s career, save his hanger-on 2010 finale and the ’05 season would spell the end of Packer coach Mike Sherman. But the Bears hadn’t yet played their long-time nemesis and this game in Soldier Field was the chance to officially announce themselves as the new boss of the NFC North. The rivals played a good game, with four Robbie Gould field goals giving the Bears a 12-7 lead they took into the fourth quarter. Varsher made the play to seal the game, picking off a Favre pass near midfield and taking it to the house. Similar to how Chicago had defended Culpepper and the Vikings in the game that turned the season, Chicago took the run away, allowed a high number of completions—Favre would go 31-for-58—but kept the passing game underneath, as the Packers got only 272 yards from the completions, and then added two interceptions.
The winning streak ended the following week in Pittsburgh against a Steeler team that was only 7-5 coming in, but beginning a run that would ultimately lead them a Super Bowl win in February. The idea of shutting down the run didn’t work against Jerome Bettis and a muscular offensive line, as Bettis piled up 101 yards on 17 carries, while Ben Roethlisberger was efficient, at 13-for-20, and got the ball downfield, producing 173 yards. At 9-4, Chicago took care of Atlanta and a Christmas Day visit to Green Bay to wrap up both the division and a first-round playoff bye, then lost a meaningless finale in Minnesota.
Chicago’s path to the Super Bowl was there—as the #2 seed, they would have a week off and then a home game for the second round of the playoffs. Grossman had come back late in the regular season, and the NFC’s top seed, Seattle, was not seen as overwhelming. Of course neither were the Bears, which made the entire NFC bracket seem wide-open. Wild-card teams won road games in the first round, with Carolina and Washington advancing. It was the Panthers who came to Soldier Field for a late afternoon game on Sunday to conclude this round of the playoffs.
With Fox crew Joe Buck and Troy Aikman watching from on high, the Bear secondary cracked in the first quarter as Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme hit Steve Smith on a 60-yard touchdown strike, then got three John Kasay field goals sandwiched around a Bear touchdown. It was 16-7 at the half and the team built on defense had to find a way to rally.
Grossman led a drive in the third quarter that ended with a 1-yard flip to Clark, but Delhomme and Smith again combined for a big play, producing a 39-yard touchdown pass that pushed the lead back to 23-14. The Bears found the end zone early in the fourth quarter, but now special teams blundered and allowed a 61-yard kickoff return for the Panthers, which they quickly converted into a touchdown. Bear Nation could breathe a sigh of relief when Kasay shanked a huge extra point that kept the lead 29-21, within one possession.
Chicago got as close as the Carolina 37 with just over two minutes to play, plenty of time to run an offense and get the touchdown and tying two-point conversion. But Grossman was intercepted and the season was over.
The season was over but Lovie Smith’s building process in Chicago was not—the following season the Bears got the #1 seed in the NFC and reached the Super Bowl before losing to Indianapolis. For 2005, their story was one of a franchise back on the move, and for fans on the South Side of Chicago, it joined with a White Sox World Series title and a great run for Illinois basketball to make 2005 a special year.